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Human rights and colonial legacies in Equatorial Guinea


President Teodoro Obiang speaking
The infamous and long-serving President of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang.

Equatorial Guinea is, in many ways, akin to any other formerly-colonized country in Africa. Consisting of several separated portions, islands off the coast of Cameroon and a mainland corridor tucked between Cameroon and Gabon, Equatorial Guinea is home to about 1.7 million people. The former Spanish colony is made up of about 86% ethnic Fang, native to mainland called Río Muni, 7% ethnic Bubi, native to Bioko Island, and a collection of mixed African/Spanish/Portuguese descent groups, other smaller indigenous African groups, and both Igbo and Gabonese contingencies near the coastline. 1


Equatorial Guinea emerged as a Spanish colony with a history of attempts of slavery and forced labor, intermittent European presence, and eventual societal transformation similar to the rest of colonized Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. 2


The nation gained independence in 1968, and up to that point it had the highest exports per capita in all of Africa and was a leading producer of cocoa. Of course, Equatorial Guinea had now lost its privileged access to Spanish markets, and as an export-oriented economy, they struggled. 3 Today, Equatorial Guinea, generally speaking, lies at the periphery of the world’s economic and political spheres. Despite 2010s growth at unprecedented levels, their economy is currently in a slump, with GDP shrinking each year. Despite this, they still rank highly compared to neighbors on a per capita basis. 4 They are incredibly resource reliant, with the only major industries being petroleum and natural gas (discovered in 1991) and lumber. The major problem lies with how little the high GDP per capita affects the average citizen. Poverty rates remain high, development remains low, and their oil and gas reserves are projected to run dry in about a decade. 5


Where do the funds procured from these reserves go, exactly? Frequently, it ends up in the pockets of the longest serving leader of any country in the world, Teodoro Obiang, and his family, friends, and close associates. 6 A consistent under-investment in healthcare, education, and other basic social programs has created a situation where Equatorial Guineans are rich on paper but in reality struggle with the same issues as significantly poorer countries. 7 The denial of these basic human rights as a result of heavy corruption has led to condemnations from international organizations and, arguably, the coup attempts in both 2004 and 2018.

map of Equatorial Guinea
A map of Equatorial Guinea, including Río Muni and the islands of Bioko and Annobon.

In many cases, colonial legacies tend to involve resource dependency, ethnic divisions, corruption, widespread underdevelopment, and an inability to remain truly independent due to economic, political, and social structuring. Equatorial Guinea is no exception.





Human Rights realities


Simply put, President Teodoro Obiang is no stranger to human rights abuses. After seizing power in a coup in 1979, he quickly made stifling political opposition and repressing civil society major priorities. 8 His disdain for dissent and criticism has resulted in the arrest and torture of anyone who opposes his iron fist, with the piles of stolen oil money almost an afterthought. At times, Obiang has passed anti-torture and pro-opposition legislation; in reality, little has changed over his four decades in charge. 9 Even in the past couple years, his “Cleaning Operations”, with the stated goal of countering gang activity, equated to hundreds of young men detained and tortured with little to no evidence. 10 In the same vein, President Obiang ordered arbitrary arrests of opposition figures including former minister Ruben Maye Nsue Mangue and party leader Gabriel Nse Obiang Obono, the latter of which was accompanied by 150 supporters. In all of the chaos, government reports detail several fatalities. 11 The reality is that even still, those who care about and want to change the system are targeted by the government for exercising their right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. 12


 

“Equatorial Guineans who turn 40 this year were born, and grew up, in a country where human rights have been constantly and systematically violated.”

-Marta Colomer, Amnesty International’s West Africa Senior Campaigner 13

 

In terms of development, Equatorial Guinea has the world’s largest gap between per capita wealth and its human development score. Money that should have been apportioned to hospitals, schools, and other public endeavors has instead been diverted to beefing up the capital city of Malabo, building hotels, airports, and modern roads meant to make the country appear developed without creating actual progress. 14 While some infrastructure improvements can be justified, the oil money enabled Obiang to award inflated contracts to his family and inner circle while also skimming money to be kept overseas. In short - Equatorial Guinea’s government and leadership, primarily Obiang, are squandering a fortune destined for an entire country. Especially in postcolonial Africa, corruption is inevitable to a degree - but the amount of money diverted in comparison to what went to the people is truly a human rights violation to a grave extent.


Colonialism and neocolonialism vs. 'intervention'


Briefly, one core reason that countering this variant of human rights abuses is so difficult for Western countries and institutions is the fine line between violations of sovereignty through neocolonialism and intervention with humanitarian intentions. Equatorial Guinea, like so many African nations, was transformed artificially by colonialism for the worse. Mistrust of the West can be, rightfully so, a point of concern not just for incumbent leaders but also those desiring change. The 2004 coup, for example, involved British, American, and Portuguese intelligence and military actors, which was received as one might expect. 15 US regime change efforts in the Middle East and Afghanistan have also undoubtedly diminished confidence. Moreover, Western meddling in politics and economies is not really a solution to systemic human rights issues. In truth, underlying colonial legacies mean that countries need time to develop organically and sort out ethnic, political, social, economic, and regional issues themselves. In the meantime, we can still advocate for human rights at every fruitful avenue.



Footnotes

1  “Equatorial Guinea.” The World Factbook, CIA.gov. https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/equatorial-guinea/


2  Chira, Adriana. “A Forgotten Colony: Equatorial Guinea and Spain.” EuropeNow. March 1, 2018. https://www.europenowjournal.org/2018/02/28/a-forgotten-colony-equatorial-guinea-and-spain/


3 Ibid.


4 “Equatorial Guinea.” The World Factbook.


5  “Equatorial Guinea oil wealth 'squandered and stolen'.” The East African. June 19, 2017. https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/tea/business/equatorial-guinea-oil-wealth-squandered-and-stolen--1367746


6  “Equatorial Guinea President's Son Goes on Trial Over $105M in Assets.” NBC News. January 3, 2017. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/equatorial-guinea-president-s-son-goes-trial-over-100m-assets-n702531



8  Saadoun, Sarah. “The Anniversary that Shouldn't Be: 40 Years of President Obiang in Equatorial Guinea.” Human Rights Watch. August 3, 2019. https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/08/03/anniversary-shouldnt-be-40-years-president-obiang-equatorial-guinea


9  “Equatorial Guinea: 40 years of repression and rule of fear highlights human rights crisis.” Amnesty International. August 2, 2019. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2019/08/equatorial-guinea-years-of-repression-and-rule-of-fear/ 



11 Ibid.


12 “Equatorial Guinea: 40 years of repression and rule of fear highlights human rights crisis.” Amnesty International.


13 Ibid.


14  Munshi, Neil. “Four decades of growth, but Equatorial Guinea’s people still mired in poverty.” Financial Times. December 31, 2019. https://www.ft.com/content/f4d0e2d0-1cc9-11ea-97df-cc63de1d73f4

Birrell, Ian. “The strange and evil world of Equatorial Guinea.” The Guardian. October 22, 2011. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/oct/23/equatorial-guinea-africa-corruption-kleptocracy 


15  Chitty, Alex. “Simon Mann Says He Was Asked to Help Start the Iraq War.” Vice. January 23, 2013. https://www.vice.com/en/article/dp4byw/an-interview-with-simon-mann


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