14 September 2011

Equatorial Guinea: Qaddafi Gone, His Specter Lingers


With the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi, Africa has witnessed the end of the continent's longest standing dictator. While this gives Libyans and democracy advocates cause to celebrate, it is worth remembering that poor governance continues to victimize several other African countries.

One of those countries is Equatorial Guinea, whose president, Teodoro Obiang - in power since 1979 - supplants Qaddafi as Africa's longest serving leader.

Unfortunately for the citizens of Equatorial Guinea, there are a number of disconcerting parallels between the Obiang and Qaddafi governing styles.

Both men turned the control of their countries' oil wealth into a family affair, enriching family, friends, and political cronies, while amassing enormous fortunes themselves. Assessing the size of these fortunes isn't an exact science, given the opacity of their respective regimes and the international banking system, but it is believed that Qaddafi and his family extorted billions from the Libyan state. In 2006, Forbes estimated that Obiang's personal fortune was $600 million.

Thanks to two U.S. Senate investigations since 2004, more is known about the personal fortune accumulated by Obiang's oldest son, potential successor, and current minister of agriculture and forestry, Teodoro Nguema. Among other luxuries, he owns a $35 million seafront mansion in the U.S., multimillion dollar homes in France and South Africa, a $38 million Gulfstream jet, and dozens of high-end sports cars.

Teodoro Nguema's salary as government minister is roughly $7000 per month. To explain his apparent personal wealth, an affidavit he filed in a South African court states that government ministers are allowed to negotiate deals that put "a sizable part of the contract price in his bank account."

Thanks to oil, the per capita incomes of Equatorial Guinea and Libya are the highest on the African continent; Equatorial Guinea's rivals those of France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Yet both countries have significant poverty.

Obiang and Qaddafi also share the dubious distinction of having governed two of the world's most repressive countries in 2010, according to Freedom House. In Libya, Qaddafi's regime severely curtailed civil liberties, including freedom of expression and assembly. Independent media outlets and civil society groups were routinely harassed.

A similar situation exists today in Equatorial Guinea, where civil liberties are frequently abrogated and all broadcast media are controlled by Obiang's regime or family.

As EG Justice recently documented in the report "Disempowered Voices," Obiang's regime uses a number of formal and informal mechanisms to systematically hinder citizen participation. The country's laws require nongovernmental organizations to get government permission to hold meetings and require civil society groups to disclose their financial records to the government. Activists inside the country complain that the government hinders civil society through censorship, intimidation, and the use of a confusing and nontransparent regulatory process that encourages bribery and favoritism.

The long tenures of Qaddafi and Obiang share another commonality: the desire for international recognition. Qaddafi opportunistically shifted alliances and policies in pursuit of legitimization from the world's most powerful nations. For his part, Obiang has orchestrated a campaign to recreate himself as a humanitarian and promoter of democracy. Since 2000, his regime has spent more than $13 million on lobbyist and public relations firms in the United States. Obiang has followed Qaddafi's steps in chairing the African Union, hosting an African Union Summit, and spending billons of dollars on highly visible, yet dubious, infrastructure projects.

Some of Obiang's efforts to polish his image border on the absurd. For instance, even though the country's education system suffers from decades of neglect, the government has doggedly pressed the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to reinstate a $3 million prize funded by and named for Obiang.

Incredibly, given its heavy-handed repression of domestic civil society, the Equatoguinean government is trumpeting its recent decision to host the headquarters for the "Confederation of Non-Governmental Organizations in Africa," a little known organization with a limited record that focuses solely on climate change and deforestation.

Yet in June, the government did not authorize the pre-summit civil society meetings that traditionally occur ahead of African Union summits, a clear indication of the Obiang regime's degree of commitment to civil society.

The Arab Spring uprisings responsible for toppling Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Qaddafi have African leaders worried about their own tenure. In Equatorial Guinea, Obiang's regime has forbidden state-controlled media from even mentioning the protests.

Qaddafi may be gone, but his specter lives on in other parts of Africa.

Tutu Alicante is the executive director at EG Justice, a US-based organization dedicated to promoting human rights, the rule of law, transparency, and civic participation in Equatorial Guinea.

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