Lisbon — The oil interests of Angola, Brazil and Portugal could pave the way for former Spanish colony Equatorial Guinea to become the ninth member of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP) two years from now, despite the country's poor human rights record.
Equatorial Guinea, which has been ruled with an iron fist for nearly 30 years by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, currentlys hold observer status in the CPLP, whose full members are Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Portugal, Sao Tomé and Príncipe and East Timor.
At the 2006 CPLP summit of heads of state and government, Obiang Nguema managed to play down accusations of systematic human rights abuses, and his country was admitted as an associate observer.
And at this year's summit, held in July in Lisbon, Obiang Nguema requested that Equatorial Guinea be accepted as a full member in 2010. To that end, he promised to make Portuguese the country's third official language, after Spanish and French. (Spanish is the most widely spoken language).
Membership in the CPLP would give Equatorial Guinea access to professional and academic exchange programmes and would facilitate the cross-border circulation of its citizens.
Obiang Nguema pointed out that Equatorial Guinea was a Portuguese colony for three centuries (from the late 15th to the late 18th centuries), and that Portuguese-based Creole is still spoken in some parts of the country.
This tiny west central African nation of 28,000 square km, wedged between Gabon and Cameroon, has a population of just over one million people. It was discovered in 1471 by Portuguese navigator Fernando Po, and in 1493, King John II of Portugal took the title of "Lord of Guinea".
In 1778 the colony was ceded to Spain in exchange for recognition of Lisbon's sovereignty over Colônia do Santissimo Sacramento, the disputed city founded by the Portuguese in 1680 on the shoes of the Rio de la Plata (River Plate) estuary across from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Colonia del Sacramento is now one of the biggest cities in Uruguay.
However, it was not the arguments referring to history or languages that convinced the CPLP leaders, but the participation of the organisation's three biggest members, Angola, Brazil and Portugal, in exploiting Equatorial Guinea's vast oil reserves.
According to oil industry estimates, there may be 450 million barrels of reserves in the Muni estuary alone.
Since oil and gas were discovered in Equatorial Guinea in the early 1990s, it has quietly become sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest oil exporter, after Nigeria and Angola.
BP (previously known as British Petroleum) reported in 2007 that Equatorial Guinea's output was estimated at 363,000 barrels a day -- five times more than a decade ago.
The BP report also states that Equatorial Guinea's proven oil reserves amount to just 0.1 percent of the global total only due to the lack of geological studies, because if such studies were to confirm what is suspected, the country's reserves could represent 10 percent of the total, due to the vast off-shore reserves in the Gulf of Guinea.
Enticed by the industry's vast potential, oil companies from Portugal, Brazil and Angola have joined countries like the United States in a mad scramble for a share of the pie.
With the help of Libya, granted by its leader, Muammar Gaddafi -- one of Obiang Nguema's long-time allies -- a Portuguese delegation visited Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, early this year
Angola signed its first oil agreements five years ago, and Brazil is starting to explore a promising off-shore block.
The agreements with Angola, signed in 2003, include bilateral cooperation agreements in oil, electricity and transportation, which led to the creation of the Sonagesa airline, a joint venture that is run in Equatorial Guinea by the Obiang Nguema family.
Brazil's state-owned oil company Petrobras acquired a 50 percent stake in Block L, in the Muni estuary, where it hopes to find an estimated 450,000 barrels of oil.
Portugal is also keen on keeping up in the race. But as a former European colonial power in Africa, it prefers to forge ahead by means of its preferential agreements with Angola and Libya.
One of the key shareholders in the Portuguese state-owned oil company Galp Energía is Angola's national oil company, Sonangol, which has a strong presence in Equatorial Guinea.
At the same time, Galp Energía wants to fully apply its partnership agreement with LAP (Libya Africa Investment Portfolio) to explore and produce oil and natural gas in Libya, as well as in Equatorial Guinea and other African countries.
The president of Galp Energía, Manuel Ferreira de Oliveira, visited Malabo in February to identify business opportunities, including the distribution of fuel.
But in the race to conquer the market, the three countries are not alone, nor do they even head the list. The United States is the biggest foreign investor in Equatorial Guinea's oil industry, having invested seven billion dollars this year alone.
"The environment is extremely favourable to doing business: there is economic openness, and 15.8 percent growth from 2002 to 2006, but under a totalitarian regime that guarantees a disciplined labour force, as transnational corporations tend to demand," international affairs analyst Augusto Videla told IPS.
But while the economy is enjoying fast economic growth driven by oil and gas sales, which represent 90 percent of the country's exports, "the country is the victim of immense corruption, with Obiang Nguema's family as the chief culprit, but with the involvement of foreign companies and banks as well, at the same time that the overwhelming majority of the population lives on less than a dollar a day," he added.
Asked why a notorious dictatorship would be accepted as an observer and perhaps full member of the CPLP, the organisation's outgoing executive secretary, Luís Fonseca, told IPS that the Community, "made up of eight democratic members, will exercise its influence to improve the situation."
But Videla is sceptical, saying that "with Obiang Nguema in power, nothing is going to change in Equatorial Guinea, which he considers his personal fiefdom, and which has become of the most closed countries in the world and one of the worst human rights violators, where opposition is not tolerated and freedom of the press is a pipe dream."