17 January 2013

Nigeria: Unsolicited Advice to President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo


On this page last week, I told readers that in the course of my visit to Equatorial Guinea to cover the Summit of the Heads of State and Government of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) what I saw of that country is completely different from the impression created of it by mainly the Western media. I said that the story of Equatorial Guinea is not one long tale of dictatorship and nothing else. Equatorial Guinea is undergoing a serious physical transformation and even the blind can see that.

I spoke of the ambition of President Obiang Nguema Mbasago to turn Malabo the capital city of his country into the Dubai of Africa. I heard that like Nigeria, Mbasogo has a dream that by the year 2020, his country should become an emerging economy. I like leaders who not only dream but who also take concrete steps to actualise their dreams as I saw Mbasogo doing in Equatorial Guinea. Some may raise issues over the fact that he is not running a Western style democracy. Some may even call him a brutal dictator but some of us prefer a development-oriented dictatorship to a debatorial democracy that does not offer any tangible dividends any day any time.

In terms of developmental dividends, Mbasogo has demonstrated a sufficiency of them. But there are many signs, some visible and some talked about in hushed tones, for fear of reprisals, of problems ahead for him and his country if no urgent steps are taken to correct or manage them. This is why this unsolicited advice by a concerned foreigner or rather a concerned foreign brother, is given. There is urgent need for Mbasogo to seek to learn from history, especially some very recent history, of leaders who failed to listen to the voices of their people on the street.

As the whole world is now sold on the ideas of Western style democracy, with emphasis on the right of the citizens to have a say in how they are governed, President Mbasogo should try to pay attention to opening up his country and instituting freedom of speech. What any visitor can easily see is that there is too much caginess in Equatorial Guinea. Everyone is a suspect and no one is sure of the next person. There is an obsession with security. Equatorial Guinea is a police state. Fear rules the hearts of men in Equatorial Guinea.

Even foreigners who have heard of the situation in that country have learnt to be extremely careful about what they say. When people learn that you are a journalist, they tell you to be careful even when you have not said or done anything. Your potential for mischief and to possibly get into trouble is taken as a given which is why you are forewarned. This is not good enough for the image of the country that is trying to open up and become relevant in the scheme of things The era of old fashioned dictators who keep a tight rein on their people through a chain of spies, informers and brutal enforcers is gone. The word and the norm today is liberalisation, enlightened dictatorship such as in China, Saudi Arabia and a couple of other modernising nations. It is not acceptable that Equatorial Guinea has no independent media of mass communication to talk about.

It should worry President Mbasogo that today next to the oil and gas industry, the next most lucrative job in Equatorial Guinea is security and intelligence business. Many young men and women do security and intelligence job informing on one another in order to preserve the regime. Everyone, including foreigners who were in the country for the summit, speaks in hushed tones about some of the weaknesses of the government. None dares speak boldly for fear of incurring the wrath of the authorities. Once we were in a lift and a colleague journalist asked what lawyers call a leading question about whether Equatorial Guinea was a dictatorship or a democracy. No one was willing to give him an answer until we got of the lift and those who were wise enough told him that he couldn't get an answer because of fear that there may be a recorder in the lift. The fear of state agents is pervasive and quite palpable. It was this state of affair, more than anything else that led to the collapse of regimes some regimes in the recent past.

As President Mbasogo seeks to make a Dubai out of his country, Equatorial Guinea will certainly become more cosmopolitan and more sophisticated. Outsiders will bring in their ideas. He is no longer the president of an obscure, better ignored forgotten country. The eyes of the world are now firmly fixed upon him seeking to know what he will do with the gargantuan wealth God has bestowed on his small country. The worry of the world will be whether he will go the way of Nigeria or he will chart a course of development or progress for his tiny country.

Equatorial Guinea should invest heavily in human capital development if its people are to enjoy the benefits of the country's new found oil wealth. Right now the people are not even marginally involved in the development of the oil resources as is at least the case in Nigeria and in the construction boom going on.

Equatorial Guinea is a small, isolated island nation on account of its geography. Every effort should therefore be made to ensure that it does not remain an island unto itself politically at least not forever. With vast oil wealth, Equatorial Guinea is sure to become a factor to reckon with. Huge foreign investments will pour into the country to develop the oil resources and provide services for the booming economy so not even outsiders will be indifferent to what is going on in the country in terms of politics. Such interest should not be interpreted to mean a desire to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign country. Rather it must be seen as a healthy one because where your treasure lies that is where your heart will be. The politics of the place will affect the economy so stakeholders, be there Equatorial Guineans or foreigner, will have a locus standi in volunteering opinion about the politics of the country and even seeking to influence the course of events in that place.

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