Elections in Equatorial Guinea will underwrite oppression

Equatorial Guinea, a tiny nation on Africa’s central western coast, bears a distinction above any other country in the world – the world’s longest-serving dictator

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Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo
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Jon Perdue
On 24 May 2013 10:13

Equatorial Guinea, a tiny nation on Africa’s central western coast, is the only Spanish-speaking country on the African continent. It was Spain’s only foothold in the region from its colonial days, passed to it by Portugal in 1778 as a throw-away concession to the Spanish Crown so it could get in on the West African slave trade. In 1969, Generalissimo Franco happily gave up the colonial outpost as a gesture to try to gain favour from the West.

Today, Equatorial Guinea bears a distinction above any other country in the world – the world’s longest-serving dictator. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, in power since 1979, comes straight out of Central Casting for African despots. After overthrowing his uncle, who was thought by members of his inner circle to have gone insane, Obiang has consolidated power and become highly skilled in performing the pantomime of feigning reform in order to release international pressure so that he and his family and friends can remain in power.

As far back as February 1991, when Obiang had only been in power for eleven years, a conference was held at King’s College London at which posters lining the hallways tweaked the consciences of the attendees with the slogan: “Why the Silence?” But reform has remained elusive, while Obiang has gotten far more sophisticated in his feints toward democracy.

In 1987, Obiang put out a series of press releases on the formation of what was said to be a new political party, the Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea. Most were sceptical after it was revealed that Obiang also had a law passed the week before that compelled all private employees and government workers to contribute three percent of their salaries to the new party. Perhaps more ominous than the legislative legerdemain was Obiang’s remark that the party would “never be used to do evil.” One wonders whether the phrase has needed to be uttered in any previous inaugural statements.

The new party would be utilised to keep human rights organisations at bay and the family in power for another decade, until oil was discovered in 1996, making the maintenance of power far more affordable. Prior to that discovery, Obiang had contented himself with lobbying for foreign aid from former colonial powers and skimming it into his foreign bank accounts. But oil wealth would launch the dictator to another level.

Two years ago, a news report out of France showed that Obiang, and a number of other African despots who had been receiving foreign aid in the millions, had been using much of it to acquire prime real estate in Paris.

Among Obiang’s properties in the French capital was a six story historic building on the prestigious Avenue Foch worth $23 million. A plane stopped in 2009 by French customs officials contained 26 brand new luxury sports cars, including five Bentleys, seven Ferraris, four Rolls-Royces and five Harley-David­son motorcycles, all recently purchased by Obiang’s globe-trotting son, Teodorin.

Besides the luxury consumer goods, the oil windfall has also allowed Obiang to purchase the services of some of Washington and New York’s most high-powered public relations firms to burnish his image and try to blunt some of the human rights complaints from watchdog NGOs.

Obiang has also stirred controversy by co-opting the prestige of the late American civil rights leader Leon Sullivan, whose eponymous foundation decided to accept his money in exchange for holding a conference in Equatorial Guinea’s capital, Malabo.

Last year, I wrote about the controversy caused by Sullivan’s daughter, Hope Masters, who remained defiant in the face of criticism of the move. Sullivan-Masters, it appears, was desperate for the Obiang funding in order to keep the foundation’s doors open, as it was reported closed down not long after the conference took place even after a number of high profile speakers deserted.

President Obiang has scheduled elections for this Sunday, May 26th. But few have any hopes that he will garner less than the typical 97 percent of the vote.

Tutu Alicante, an Equatoguinean who heads the human rights group EG Justice, was in Oslo, Norway last week attending the Oslo Freedom Forum, a human rights conference held where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded each December. He has spoken here a number of times, hoping to raise awareness of the decades of oppression that has afflicted his people back home.

When I asked him if he sees any actual reform coming from Obiang, his response was more stoical than hopeful: “Obiang has been doing these same things for decades. Whenever he feels pressure, he puts on a charade and tells the international press that he is introducing democratic change to the country. We will hold a sham election, and he will proclaim himself to be the elected representative of the people.”

Alicante’s pragmatism is understandable. The day the Oslo Freedom Forum closed, Amnesty International released a report that nine members of the opposition had been arrested and thrown in jail, and have since been held incommunicado. According to Noel Kututwa, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Africa Programme, “The authorities in Equatorial Guinea are heading a terrifying detention campaign targeting anyone who dares compete with them in the elections. The wave of arrests and harassment against pro-democracy activists documented in the last week is casting a dark shadow over the upcoming elections.”

And on Monday, Amnesty reported that the wife and brother of an opposition leader had been arrested, presumably to pressure him to turn himself in to Obiang’s enforcers ahead of the election. From these inauspicious reports, it appears unlikely that it will be elections that will free Equatorial Guinea from the Obiang regime.

Jon B. Perdue is the author of The War of All the People - The Nexus of Latin American Radicalism and Middle Eastern Terrorism (Potomac, 2012), and is the director of Latin America programs at the Fund for American Studies

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