Houston — It is hard to imagine a country with a lower public profile than Equatorial Guinea. Even though the tiny nation was the setting for "Tropical Gangsters," a best-selling book of development, structural adjustment and the problems that sometimes go with it, few people outside West Africa could probably place it on the right continent.
Easily overlooked between Gabon and Cameroon - where it occupies both an island and a sliver of mainland - Equatorial Guinea was relatively prosperous for a few years after gaining independence from Spain in 1968, largely due to a thriving cocoa business. But years of authoritarian rule and mismanagement dragged the country into an economic abyss as deep as the oil fields off its coasts.
"Equatorial Guinea is one of the most backward countries in the world," wrote Robert Klitgaard in his book. But that was ten years ago.
Now the country has oil, and a brighter future, according to the country's president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who visited the United States this month to get this message across. "We want people to know there are great opportunities for doing business in our country," the president said in an interview during the trip (see excerpts below).
Thanks to oil, Equatorial Guinea boasts one of the highest per capita gross domestic products in Africa, although few of the benefits have yet to be felt in important sectors such as health and social welfare. With the start of offshore production in 1995, petroleum replaced subsistence farming and timber as the economic linchpins. Further contributing to fiscal health, Equatorial Guinea joined the regional CFA franc zone, also in 1995, thereby pegging its currency to the French franc and becoming the only non-French speaking nation in the grouping.
Not everything in the country has changed. President Obiang has been in power for two decades. A student of the Franco Military Academy in Spain, he rose to become vice minister of the armed forces before directing the 1979 coup that ousted Francisco Macias Nguema, who had been ruling the country with an iron fist since 1971.
Reviews of Obiang's leadership have been mixed. Early on, his rule was compared to that of his predecessor: rife with corruption and human rights abuses. In its annual human rights report issued earlier this year, the U.S. State Department delineates a series of " systematic human rights abuses" and accuses the country's security forces of "many serious abuses" during 1998.
But President Obiang denies sweeping charges of malfeasance and says he is committed to democracy and the rule of law. In 1996, he transformed himself into a civilian head of state, winning a seven-year term in the country's first contested poll. In March, the government conducted a multi-party election for the legislative assembly.
The 1996 voting was seen by international observers as significantly flawed. In the State Department's words, the process was "marred by extensive fraud and intimidation." This year's poll, in which Obiang's ruling party won 75 of the 80 seats, received higher marks.
Chester Norris, who served as U.S. ambassador to Equatorial Guinea in the late 1980s, is an Obiang admirer. "He really wants to bring about democracy and improve the human rights record, " said Norris, who is credited with enticing the first prospecting by American firms during his tenure in the country. "It's already pretty good."
The fact that the outside perception is quite opposite, Norris believes, is largely due to the fact that the people of Equatorial Guinea "don't speak for themselves." Most of what the world hears about the country comes through the Spanish press, a colonial legacy which clearly frustrates Obiang, who has not visited Madrid since 1985.
He says Spanish firms which spent a decade unsuccessfully searching for petroleum are upset that U.S. firms have now assumed center stage. Investment by mainly American companies during the 1990s exceeded $2 billion.
President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea- excerpts of an interview during last month's Corporate Council on Africa Business Summit
Q: Equatorial Guinea is suddenly blessed with large resources - so large that it has been called the Kuwait of Africa because of its vast oil reserves. What strategies do you have in mind to mitigate pollution and congestion that have plagued other countries with similar wealth?
A: We have carried out a national conference to talk about these issues. We believe that improving infrastructure, including health services, is the most important for us now. This includes improving roads, telecommunications, ports, and airports, constructing more social welfare housing and being able to provide safe drinking water and electricity for the entire country.
We do bear in mind that the oil industry is perishable and therefore we want to develop agricultural products to avoid trouble in the future. To this end we have created a special organization to support agricultural programs and we plan to create an agricultural bank.
Q: How can you avoid problems with corruption and mismanagement?
A: There are political institutions that keep in touch with Congress and the Parliament. There is also the Supreme Court that handles cases involving inappropriate (financial) activities. There is also a government organization in charge of keeping track of where exactly funds are going and making sure that the appropriate people are taxed as they should be.
Q: Equatorial Guinea has been criticized for its human rights record. What is the government's policy on human rights, as well as democratization and press freedom?
A: The government has taken all the necessary measures to respect human rights. There is a parliamentary national commission on human rights. Recently, the United Nations upgraded the status of Equatorial Guinea in terms of human rights. That is great progress. The European parliament has also noted that our rights record has improved.
In terms of democratization, the government and different political parties signed an agreement establishing a committee to follow up on the democratization process. As an example of taking that process forward, the last census was carried out by the government and various (opposition) parties. In addition, political parties enjoyed all freedoms available to them during the last elections. They could do any type of advertising and propaganda that they wished. American organizations assist us with the electoral process and democratization.
There is freedom of the press. There are some newspapers that are from the government, as well as a television channel and radio stations. And there are also independent newspapers and an independent radio station. Nobody has been arrested for voicing an opinion about the country's political system. But Equatorial Guinea is the only African country that speaks Spanish. The Spanish press issues negative reports. There are obvious reasons. For example, the Spanish carried out oil exploration activities in Equatorial Guinea for ten years but achieved no results. So, now that American companies have achieved results, they are a little jealous and envious and all they can do is give us bad press.
Q: What would you like people around the world to know about Equatorial Guinea?
A: Equatorial Guinea has very many different ethnic groups and we all live in harmony and that is contrary to (some) other countries in Africa. There has also been a very significant progress in the process of democratization that is much better than other countries around us. The economic progress and development of our country is also an aspect that is important and I would like the whole world to know that: the development and success of Equatorial Guinea. Not just the negative.
Equatorial Guinea: Basic Information
LAND: Area of 17,433 square miles, slightly larger than the U.S. state of Maryland. The capital is Malabo, which is located on the island of Bioko (formerly called Fernando Po).
PEOPLE: Population of about 500,400. Most people survive on subsistence farming and belong to the two Bantu subgroups, the Bubi and the Fang. Predominantly Roman Catholic; some animism.
HISTORY: In the 2nd century the first Fang settlers arrived on the mainland part of the country. It became a Portuguese territory from 1471 to 1778. In the early 1800s Britain established a base on the island of Bioko to combat the slave trade. In 1904 Spain enforced administrative power until 1968 when it was granted independence. Francisco Macias Nguema created a one-party state in 1971. He ruled until Obiang, a Spanish-tought military officer, took power in 1979.
ECONOMY: Annual income from oil exceeds $200 million. About 90,000 barrels of petroleum a day are produced from the Zafiro field. The American firm Mobil, which holds 75 percent of the joint venture with the government of Equatorial Guinea, plans to increase production to about 120,000 barrels a day by next year. Other exports include timber, cocoa and coffee. GDP grew 50 percent between 1996 and 1997. Much foreign assistance has been suspended pending economic, political and human rights reforms.
GOVERNMENT: Power largely rests with the president, who also chairs the ruling President's Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea. The party controls the judiciary and the legislature.
Related Links - Not produced or endorsed by Africa News Service
U.S. State Department Human Rights Report on Equatorial Guinea (1998)
U.S. Census Bureau U.S. Trade with Equatorial Guinea in 1999
Tropical Gangsters: One Man's Experience with Development and Decadence in Deepest Africa by Robert Klitgard (Basic Books, 1991)