Washington, DC — Equatorial Guinea's government has spent lavishly on diplomatic accommodations while neglecting the rights of the country's poor in the lead-up to hosting the African Union summit, Human Rights Watch and EG Justice said today.
The government has also sharply limited public dissent and critical reporting. While most citizens of Equatorial Guinea languish in poverty, President Teodoro Obiang's government, which holds the revolving AU chairmanship, spent more than US$830 million to construct a luxury complex for the summit outside the nation's capital, Malabo.
"The Obiang government hopes that foreign visitors will be favorably impressed by the deluxe facilities built for their enjoyment," said Tutu Alicante, executive director of EG Justice, an organization based in Washington, DC. "But visitors should instead question why the government is building villas for the rich while Equatorial Guinea's poor live in slums without reliable electricity or drinking water."
The theme of the AU Summit, which runs from June 23 to July 1, 2011, is "Accelerating Youth Empowerment for Sustainable Development."
Oil revenues make the country's per-capita wealth in 2010 equivalent to that of Germany, Japan, or the United Kingdom, but living standards are very poor.
Current statistics are hard to obtain for the country, which does not always produce reliable data. More than three-quarters of the country's people live in poverty, according to a 2007 study by the government of Equatorial Guinea, whose findings the government has cited as recently as 2009 but now disputes. Equatorial Guinea's child mortality rates have declined somewhat, in line with global trends, but 2009 UNICEF figures indicate that the country ranks the 14th worst in the world on this indicator. The government has not produced updated figures.
The Obiang government has at times denied that poverty is a serious problem, while on other occasions it has recognized the need to improve social welfare. It recently dismissed as "absurd" outside criticisms about extreme poverty in the country, stating that Equatoguineans "now enjoy a status envied around the world."
In 2007, it adopted a long-term development plan that largely focuses on infrastructure but also calls for social improvements. Social spending levels have increased, compared with spending in past years. But overall allocations to meet social needs remain relatively low in light of available funds, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Education spending as a percentage of GDP is lower in Equatorial Guinea than in neighboring countries, including Cameroon and Gabon, despite the fact that Equatorial Guinea is the wealthiest nation in sub-Saharan Africa on a per-capita basis.
Education spending was approximately $200 million in 2008, the most recent year for which the figure could be calculated. That sum is less than one-quarter of the government's expenditures on building the complex to host the AU summit.
It is difficult for citizens of Equatorial Guinea to challenge the government's spending choices from inside the country, given the lack of press freedom and crackdowns on those who criticize the government or try to mobilize to defend their rights, EG Justice and Human Rights Watch said.
The Malabo event, unlike other AU summits, will not include a parallel civil society gathering for foreign and domestic groups. No public explanation has been offered.
The government has said that it is "reinforcing surveillance" to ensure "perfect security" for the meeting. It closed schools a month early in what may be a measure designed to deter youth protests. Earlier in the year, it banned public demonstrations. Opposition groups and human rights monitors have reported incidents in which political activists, students, and migrants were detained between April and June. United Nations experts and others have documented serious and widespread abuses by Equatorial Guinea's security forces, including systematic use of torture.
Both domestic and international journalists have faced obstacles in reporting freely. Some foreign journalists have been denied visas, while others who have worked in the country report being under surveillance, harassed, and detained.
For example, on June 11, Equatorial Guinea security agents expelled journalists from the German television network ZDF after interrogating them for several hours and deleting footage the agents felt showed the country in an unfavorable light, including images of poverty. In April 2010, the sole foreign correspondent in Equatorial Guinea, an Agence France-Presse reporter, was detained and held for several hours while attempting to cover the arrival of foreign dignitaries for a summit meeting.
"Equatorial Guinea's government tries to silence its own citizens and harasses the international press, but visiting dignitaries should speak up about the need for dramatic reform in Equatorial Guinea," Alicante said.
The new complex built for the summit, called Sipopo, is about five kilometers outside of Malabo. A June 10 government announcement says it features a high-end hotel with the country's first spa, part of the Sofitel chain, a major new conference center, a mile-long artificial beach, 52 luxury beach-front villas (at a cost of $140 million), an 18-hole golf course, a new highway, a heliport, an ultra-modern hospital, a fiber optics network, and a police station. The Obiang government has said that it hopes Sipopo will serve as a destination for foreign tourists after the weeklong summit concludes.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has noted the relatively low social spending in Equatorial Guinea in light of needs, and expressed concern about skyrocketing spending on infrastructure. It warned in a May 2010 report that the level of public spending is unsustainable.
The IMF also expressed concern about high poverty in the country and urged the government to make projects that "raise living standards and productivity" their priority.
Equatorial Guinea's government, for its part, has argued that spending to build facilities for the AU summit would boost tourism prospects and the economy. The country will also co-host next year's African Cup of Nations, from January 21 to February 12, 2012.
"Equatorial Guinea has tremendous resources at its disposal that should be spent to benefit the population," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The stark contrast between the luxury facilities for the summit and the poor state of education, health, and civil rights for too many of the country's young people should make the international community question the government's priorities."