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Blind Eye on Africa: Human Rights,

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By John Bolender

ZNet
August 16, 2003

The Bush administration maintains reasonably friendly relations with the African nation of Equatorial Guinea despite the extreme human rights violations perpetrated by Equatorial Guinea's government against its own people. America's motive is to acquire oil from Equatorial Guinea's vast reserves. U.S. news media have largely ignored human rights issues in that country, thus leaving U.S. citizens with little information for judging the actions of their own government and its failure to hold the Equatoguinean government responsible for its actions while claiming to have invaded Iraq, at least partly, for humanitarian reasons.


Abject Poverty in "the Kuwait of Africa"

In its search for alternatives to Middle Eastern oil, the United States government is looking to rely more heavily on oil from West Africa. While the U.S. currently acquires 15% of its oil from West Africa, that figure is expected to rise to 20% by 2005 with even more growth afterward as new offshore oil fields come online. This would put West Africa's contribution to U.S. oil consumption very near current Middle Eastern levels. This explains the Bush administration's recent interest in strengthening diplomatic ties with African nations (1).

The West African nation of Equatorial Guinea sells nearly two thirds of its oil to the United States and, though a small nation, produces more crude per capita than Saudi Arabia. Even though the U.S. embassy there has been closed due to a death threat against its ambassador who complained about the country's poor human rights conditions, the United States has maintained diplomatic ties through its Cameroon embassy (2). In early September 2002, Equatorial Guinea's head of state, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, met with State Department Officials and business people in Washington after attending the opening of the United Nations General Assembly (3).

In 1991, the Spanish firm CEPSA discovered the offshore oil field of Alba near Equatorial Guinea's Bioko Island and estimated its potential to yield 68 million barrels. Production began that same year (4). I 1995, Mobil (now Exxon Mobil) discovered the Zafiro oil field, also near Bioko, estimated to have the potential to yield 400 million barrels and began production in the following year (2). Today, the oil contractors are Exxon Mobil and Amerada Hess, and the amount of oil is estimated to be at least one billion barrels. It is not for nothing that Equatorial Guinea has come to be known as "the Kuwait of Africa" (5).

Recently, there has been a campaign led by Tony Blair and human rights activists, including Christian Aid, a campaign known as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, to encourage companies doing business in Africa to disclose payments made to governments. The Financial Times has described Equatorial Guinea and several other African nations as reacting "coolly to the idea" (6). Last November, Obiang told a correspondent that the money he receives from oil contracts would remain secret, even from the International Monetary Fund (7).

Obiang's reaction comes as no shock. There is much evidence that his family spends huge amounts of money irresponsibly. Obiang's son, Teodorin Nguema Obiang takes "business trips" to the United States including, according to Africa Confidential, "several weeks in Hollywood, where he bought a range of vehicles, looked for promising acts for promotion and made payments on his project (estimated cost, US $25 million) for a recording complex plus luxury apartments." The son is also said to be "a party guy who comes in with fabulous chicks" (8). The family's extravagant shopping sprees in Paris have also been reported (9). Obiang's government has built lavish government villas for hosting oil executives to protect them from the oppressive equatorial heat. The villas' occupants are also protected from the country's citizens by walls and guard towers (5).

Given the modest population size of Equatorial Guinea, about half a million people, one might expect there to be plenty of money for everyone by way of revitalizing the economy and building up infrastructure. But most Equatoguineans are malnourished, typically with no running water or electricity. Malaria and yellow fever are rampant. The average life expectancy is 54. Sewage runs free on the streets of Malabo, the capital city, and there is no public transportation. Most citizens eke out a living, as best they can, farming rice, yams, and bananas (5, 10). It was not until July of 2003 that there was any serious talk of extending the range of television signals across the entire nation, even though the country is only about the size of Maryland (11). According to the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Public Affairs' "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices," released last March, barter remains a major aspect of the economy. For 1998, the IMF, which Obiang stated will never learn how much money he takes in, calculated that Obiang's government received $130 million in oil royalties. The government had only reported $34 million (9). This record of mismanagement of revenues has led the World Bank and the IMF to discontinue many aid programs since 1993 (12).

History

Through most of the twentieth century, Equatorial Guinea was a Spanish colony, sometimes known as "Spanish Guinea" or even "Fernando Po" after the Portuguese explorer who "discovered" the already inhabited island of Bioko. Spain developed enormous cacao plantations, principally on Bioko, importing thousands of Nigerians to work on them. Apart from issues of exploitation, this did lead to a robust economy and a high literacy rate with good medical facilities.

From 1959, Equatorial Guinea began a process of increasing autonomy from Spain culminating in independence in 1968. That year, Francisco Macias Nguema was elected the new country's first president. From 1970 through 1972, however, Macias undid many of the country's democratic structures, abrogating large parts of the constitution, instituting a single-party system, and finally declaring himself "President-for-Life." Macias' government neglected all functions except for internal security. This internal security was achieved through the death or exile of one third of the population. As a result of such turpitude, the infrastructure and economy suffered badly. The Nigerian contract laborers left as a group in 1976.

In 1979, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, nephew of Macias, staged a coup resulting in the trial and execution of Macias. Obiang assumed power, and, at least on paper, is now the elected president of Equatorial Guinea. Every seven years, Obiang is up for re-election and always manages to win, but the fairness of the elections has been questioned by international observers as well as by the main opposition parties, the Republican Democratic Force (FDR), the Convergence for Democracy (CPDS), and the Popular Union (UP), who boycott the elections. The President's Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea always maintains control of both the judiciary and the legislature. The 2002 census for Equatorial Guinea estimated the population to be 1,015,000, although the actual figure is much closer to 500,000. Opposition parties claim that this was an attempt to fix the outcome of the December 2002 elections. However, it was a step forward even to have sham elections. Obiang did not agree to have any sort of election until 1995 under pressure from the United Nations, the United States, and Spain (13).

Human Rights Abuses

On the 11th of March 1998, Amnesty International (AI) released a report titled "Equatorial Guinea: Detainees Severely Tortured – Five Already Dead." Several dozen members of the minority Bubi ethnic group, native to Bioko Island, were detained in connection with attacks on military barracks there in January of that year. AI expressed concern that the detainees were being held simply because of their ethnicity.

The detainees were subjected to foot beatings to extract confessions and were denied access to medical care. There were two documented cases of people dying from these conditions. However, AI adds that "Unconfirmed reports suggest that an unknown number of other Bubi detainees recently died in detention and were buried in mass graves by members of security forces."

Upcoming legislative elections in 1999 inspired the government to commit similar abuses in an attempt to intimidate the Bubis who have been disenfranchised by the Obiang government and who thus have reason to support opposition parties. More than ten CPDS candidates were arrested at about the same time, some being placed in detention centers and others confined to their villages. There were reports of torture in these cases as well, detainees being forced to beat their hands on a wall for half an hour, and another candidate having his feet beaten with electric cables (14).

Beginning on 14 March 2002, security forces conducted a series of arrests of tens of military personnel and civilians connected with FDR and UP. Those arrested included at least one pregnant woman. All were held without charge in Bata Public Prison and then transferred to other locations, including the Presidential Palace. Some eyewitnesses saw visible marks of torture. Obiang's public explanation was that those arrested were involved in a "diabolical" coup plot against him, although three sons of the former parliamentarian and leader of the FDR, Felipe Ondo Obiang, and his niece, the pregnant woman mentioned above, were apparently arrested only by reason of being related to the FDR leader (15). It was later determined that the exact number of those arrested was 144, sixty-eight of whom were later found guilty of attempting to overthrow the government. Those found guilty are being held in Black Beach Prison which is notorious for overcrowding, lack of hygiene, lack of adequate food and water, and lack of medical care (16).

One should be saddened, if not stunned, to learn that in April 2002, the month following the arrests, the United Nations' Commission on Human Rights voted to adopt a draft resolution abolishing its special representative for Equatorial Guinea. Nicholas Shaxson, writing for the Financial Times, reported that African officials claimed that international oil interests influenced the U.N.'s decision to stop regular human rights monitoring in the troubled country. China, whose lack of oil reserves has made it desperate to seek oil in West Africa, cast its vote in favor of this disturbing resolution. This year, China even sent delegates bearing gifts, and praised Equatorial Guinea's "wise leadership" (17).

On 17 September 2002, Amnesty International reported that one of those being held, Juan Asumu Sima, died in Black Beach Prison. Sima needed help standing during his trial and was reported to have had scars on his legs and arms at the time. This is consistent with reports that he was severely tortured in pre-trial detention. During his trial, he repeatedly requested medical help but this was denied to him. Although he was elderly, torture may have contributed to Sima's death (16). On the 7th or 8th of June 2003, Felipe Ondo Obiang, former head of the FDR and very much the center of the storm in President Obiang's anti-coup purge, who had been sentenced to twenty years imprisonment, simply vanished, speculation being that he was abducted (18).

The 3rd of August 2003 was the 24th anniversary of Obiang's coup against Macias. The day before the anniversary, Obiang used the occasion to pardon eleven of these political prisoners, including Placido Mico, secretary-general of CPDS. Jeremias Ondo Ngomo, Equatorial Guinea's "second deputy prime minister in charge of human rights issues" promptly praised Obiang's humanitarian gesture (19). The release of any of these prisoners is certainly not to be discouraged and is obviously good news, but it is hard not to suppress the judgment that this was merely a token gesture, especially given the timing and the fact that so few were released.

Much of the above seems newsworthy if not urgent, and is being covered by the British press to some modest degree. While there has been some coverage in the U.S., it has been minimal. If the American public knew more about the above events, they might be in a position to judge more critically the Bush administration's friendly gestures toward this potentially enormous source of oil and the enormity of its human rights record and mismanagement of revenues. They might also be better able to judge the hypocrisy of that same administration in claiming that its concern in Iraq was largely humanitarian.

References

1. David White, James Harding and John Reed, "Africans Await Bush's Visit with Suspicion" Financial Times, 6 July 2003; Martyn Wingrove, "West Africa the Target as US Seeks Fresh Crude Suppliers" Lloyd's List, 10 July 2003.

2. Foreign Relations of the United States, www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/

3. "Oil Diplomacy" The New York Times 7 September 2002 Late Edition.

4. Energy Information Administration, eia.doe.gov/

5. Ken Silverstein, "U.S. Oil Politics in the ‘Kuwait of Africa'" The Nation 22 April 2002.

6. Carola Hoyos and Michael Peel, "Boost for UK-Led Plan to Increase Oil Payment Openness" Financial Times 18 June 2003. See also Terry McAlister, "Shell Opens Its Books on Nigeria" The Guardian 20 June 2003.

7. "Oiling the Palm Trees: Africa's Latest Oil State is Learning the Tricks of the Multinational Trade" Africa Confidential Vol. 44, 7 February 2003.

8. "Star-Struck" Africa Confidential Vol. 42, 29 June 2001.

9. David Hecht, "Gushers of Wealth, But Little Trickles Down" The Christian Science Monitor 21 July 1999.

10. Hecht; Silverstein; Augustin Velloso "Equatorial Guinea: A Few Rich, Many Poor" Counterpunch, 9 June 2003.

11. "Equatorial Guinea: Cabinet Meets Over Extension of National TV Countrywide" BBC Monitoring Service, 15 July 2003.

12. CIA World Factbook 2002.

13. Information on the history of Equatorial Guinea taken from Foreign Relations of the United States and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor's report on Equatorial Guinea dated 31 March 2003.

14. Amnesty International, "Equatorial Guinea Arrests Undermine Free Elections" 18 February 1999.

15. Amnesty International, "Equatorial Guinea: Fear of Torture/Possible POCs" 19 March 2002, and "Equatorial Guinea: Detainees Held Incommunicado Risk Being Tortured to Death," 28 March 2002.

16. Amnesty International, "Medical Care Urgently Needed for Over 60 Political Prisoners, Equatorial Guinea: New Information: Death of Juan Asumu Sima," 10 July 2002. Eleven were recently released, as shall be discussed shortly.

17. Nicholas Shaxson, "UN Accused Over Human Rights: Equatorial Guinea Oil Interests Blamed for Decision to Stop Monitoring" Financial Times, 20 April 2002. For China's diplomatic efforts in 2003, see Radio Nacional de Guinea Ecuatorial, Malabo, 0600 gmt, 24 April 2003; reported by BBC Monitoring Service "Equatorial Guinea: Chinese Communist Party Delegation Ends Visit" 20 June 2003.

18. Radio France Internationale 0730 gmt 10 June 2003, reported in "Equatorial Guinea: Missing Opposition Leader Said to Have Been Abducted," BBC Monitoring Service, 10 June 2003.

19. RNE Radio 1, Madrid, 1600 gmt 2 August 2003, reported in "Equatorial Guinean President Pardons Jailed Dissidents," BBC Monitoring Service, 2 August 2003; and Radio Nacional de Guinea Ecuatorial, Malabo, 0600 gmt 4 August 2003, reported in "Equatorial Guinea: President Releases Some Political Prisoners," BBC Monitoring Service, 8 August 2003.


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