Paris — Equatorial Guinea is seeking to rejoin a group that works to curb corruption in resource-rich countries, Human Rights Watch, EG Justice, and Publish What You Pay-US said today. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) requires transparency around oil, gas, and mining revenue and activities and respect for civil society. The group delisted Equatorial Guinea in 2010, in part over concerns about its repression of civil society.
Before accepting an application, the EITI board should carefully scrutinize whether it includes concrete steps to address the government's long history of civil society repression and to create an enabling environment for citizens to engage with resource governance, the groups said. The International Monetary Fund should similarly scrutinize the application before deciding whether it satisfies a requirement that would make Equatorial Guinea eligible for a loan.
"If Equatorial Guinea follows EITI's requirements, it would bring much-needed transparency to its oil sector and protect people's right to engage in public debate, including about government mismanagement and corruption," said Sarah Saadoun, a business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "But the Equatorial Guinean government's unrelenting attacks on critics calls into question whether this is a good-faith effort to apply to EITI or a check-the-box exercise to qualify for an IMF loan."
Equatorial Guinea is a small, oil-rich Central African nation led by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has amassed enormous wealth for himself and his family during his 40 years in power. Gabriel Mbaga Obiang Lima, the president's son who is also minister of mines and hydrocarbons, delivered a speech at EITI's Global Conference in Paris on June 18, 2019, during which he announced his government's intention to apply to rejoin the initiative. If accepted, it would fulfill the final requirement to make the government eligible for a loan package from the IMF under one of its current programs.
Any IMF loan without genuine and sweeping governance reform raises significant concerns given the government's history of corruption and gross financial mismanagement, the groups said. These conditions directly contribute to the country's significantly poorer health and education outcomes than regional averages, even though it has the highest per capita income on the African continent.
To apply to EITI, a country is required to establish a national committee that includes government officials and business and civil society representatives to develop a plan to comply with the initiative's standards. The plan must disclose key information related to governance of oil, gas, and mining enterprises and confirm that the government fosters "an enabling environment for civil society." Equatorial Guinea has established such a committee, though its civil society members risk reprisals if they speak against the government.
Equatorial Guinea joined the EITI in 2007 but was delisted by the EITI board in 2010. The government's well-documented harassment of a good governance advocate, Alfredo Okenve, is emblematic of the government's intolerance of dissent. Okenve represented civil society on the EITI steering committee from 2007 to 2010 and again between 2015 and 2017 and is the vice president of one of the country's few independent human rights organizations.
In May 2010, he was removed from his position at Equatorial Guinea's National University after critiquing the government's transparency record at an event in Washington, DC. He resigned from EITI in 2017, after police held him in a police station for two weeks until he agreed to pay an arbitrarily imposed fine of more than US$3,000. In October 2018, four men, who appear to have been undercover security officials, dragged him from his car at gunpoint, drove him to a remote location, and beat him severely. Three months ago, the police prevented him from leaving the country.
The government's reprisals against , but there are many similar instances of repression against other civil society members that have largely been unreported. For example, a good governance activist who is also a member of a political opposition group, Joaquin Elo Ayeto, has been in preventative detention at the Black Beach prison in Malabo since February 25, apparently for making comments critical of the government's spending priorities.
Two civil society representatives on the national EITI committee, who asked not to be quoted by name for fear of reprisals, say that civil society repression has grown worse in recent years. One said that: "creating an 'enabling environment' for civil society is not about us in the EITI committee. It's about civil society more broadly having the space to operate." The other said: "The government doesn't respect civil society and doesn't engage with them beyond EITI. No progress is being made. They're just trying to comply with EITI for the sake of the [IMF] loan."
"EITI's legitimacy as an anti-corruption tool is diminished if governments can abuse the process to bolster their image without the requisite political will or a genuine commitment to respect civil society," said Tutu Alicante, executive director of EG Justice, an organization promoting human rights and good governance in Equatorial Guinea. "It would be irresponsible to give Equatorial Guinea the benefit of the doubt when an anti-corruption activist has been wallowing in a crowded prison cell since February, apparently for daring to criticize government spending."