Amid the predominantly Francophone region in West Africa is tiny Spanish-speaking Equatorial Guinea, a country blessed — or cursed — with vast oil reserves. For most of its independent life, the country has been ruled by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has the distinction of being the longest-serving nonroyal head of state in the world.
During his 38-year reign, Obiang has overseen a rapidly growing oil-based economy and has tried to increase Equatorial Guinea’s presence in multilateral organizations to gain global legitimacy while deflecting a reputation as one of the most corrupt and repressive countries in Africa.
The country wants to join OPEC, the international oil-producing organization. And on June 2, Equatorial Guinea will run for an unopposed seat as a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council, along with the Ivory Coast. (The election for the two-year terms, beginning on Jan. 1, 2018, is conducted by the General Assembly. It includes three other seats, with Kuwait, Peru and Poland running uncontested for their regions.)
The African Union has endorsed both the Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea for the two seats allotted to Africa, but one expert on the latter country has suggested that its government bribed the African Union for support. Is the country worthy of a seat on the Security Council, some civil-society and human-rights experts ask.
Equatorial Guinea, consisting of a few offshore islands in the Gulf of Guinea and mainland territory, is about the size of Belgium. It was in the news prominently in January for welcoming Yahya Jammeh, the deposed autocratic leader of Gambia, also in West Africa. In March, Equatorial Guinea announced a partnership with South Sudan, a country on the verge of collapse because of civil war, to bolster oil cooperation.
Since the discovery of oil and gas reserves in 1996, Equatorial Guinea has become sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil exporter; as a result, it has one of the highest GDPs per capita of any country in the world. By many accounts, the oil reserves should be transforming public health and education for Equatorial Guinea’s 845,000 residents. But the country ranks 135 out of 188 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index, which examines longevity, health, education levels and other standards.
“Equatorial Guinea takes in roughly $4 billion annually in resource revenue, but it doesn’t make its budgets public, so it’s hard to know where that money goes,” said Sarah Saadoun, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, who focuses on corruption in resource-rich countries. Saadoun has been studying Equatorial Guinea for the past year for a report her organization will release in mid-June.
Equatorial Guinea is not the first country with a seriously blemished record on human rights and a corrupt government to vie for an elected seat on the Security Council. Yet it is a deeply secretive society that restricts outsiders coming in (except for Americans) and has major connections to some of the world’s biggest oil companies, including ExxonMobil. That corporation is the largest oil investor in Equatorial Guinea.
In 1994, Washington closed its embassy in Equatorial Guinea after the government accused the American ambassador of performing witchcraft. Urged by oil companies, the United States reopened its embassy under President George W. Bush in 2006. The embassy pays rent to one of Obiang’s ministers, according to a Wikileaks document. The US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is a former chief executive of ExxonMobil; under his watch, the company built up its presence in Equatorial Guinea.
In an interview with PassBlue, Saadoun discussed where she thinks some of the country’s oil money may be going.
“From the budget documents HRW [Human Rights Watch] has been able to get, and from World Bank and IMF [International Monetary Fund] reports on the country, it’s clear the vast majority of the revenue goes towards enormous infrastructure projects,” Saadoun said.
“Government officials have stakes in many of the companies that are awarded contracts for these projects,” she continued. “Oftentimes, the costs are inflated and the project itself has very little social utility, like an enormous football stadium on an island where the capacity of the stadium exceeds the number of people living on the island. At the same time, there is very little money being directed to health, education and other areas that would benefit the average Equatorial Guinean.”
President Obiang’s oldest son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue — vice president of the country — has been the subject of many international investigations of money laundering. A case brought by the US Department of Justice resulted in the forfeiture of $38 million of his assets. A trial in France, to begin June 19, after a postponement earlier this year, accuses Obiang of laundering 175 million euros, or about $197 million, of which $123 million came from the public treasury.
“It’s just heartbreaking to see how poor the public health and education systems are, given the vast wealth the country has,” Saadoun said. During a visit to the country in 2016, Saadoun saw “the bathrooms had no running water, they were full of human excrement, and some of the teachers I spoke with said they regularly had 80-105 students in a high school class. How do you teach 105 kids?”
According to a World Bank review in 2010, even money earmarked for health and education by the government was spent on astronomical administrative costs or infrastructure, while little went to actual services. Because the severe repression of civil-society groups in the country prevents outside assessments of government programs, “they are always going to be highly questionable,” said Ignacio Saiz, executive director of the Center for Economic and Social Rights, a New York advocacy organization.
“Resources are assigned in a way that merely reinforces the extremely unequal distribution of wealth where a tiny elite, usually connected in kinship with the presidential family, is living a very lavish lifestyle, while the vast majority of the population in living in extreme poverty,” Saiz said.
In 2010, Equatorial Guinea was delisted as a member of the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI), an independent global program that encourages transparency by governments, companies, civil society and financial institutions dealing in mining. If Equatorial Guinea became a member again, it would have to be more open about its budgets, revenue and expenditures.
An ExxonMobil spokesman told PassBlue that the company commended the Equatorial Guinean government for its efforts to rejoin EITI but could not comment on any recent progress on its application.
While the government has fallen far short of providing basic services to its people, some oil companies working in the country have fostered public-private partnerships and social initiatives. The PROTEGE Project, funded by the Hess Corporation and the Equatorial Guinean government, trains teachers and bolsters education infrastructure.
In 2015, ExxonMobil completed a three-year community health center restoration project in Batete, serving 3,000 Equatoguineans. Batete is on the island of Bioko, where Malabo, the country’s capital, is located.
But a native Equatoguinean, Tutu Alicante, a founder of EG Justice, a US-based anticorruption group, said in an interview that the oil companies’ initiatives are working in the wrong areas.
“We need these oil companies, rather, to seriously invest in the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative to make sure that there are enforceable legal mechanisms to hold themselves and to hold governments accountable for corruption,” Alicante said.
Saadoun of Human Rights Watch said it was the government’s responsibility to ensure that resource wealth benefits the population, not corporations. “Companies certainly should be socially responsible to make sure their own operations are not contributing to human rights abuses, and it’s wonderful for companies to be corporate citizens,” she said. “But philanthropic programs should never replace good governance.”
There is one sector in which the Equatorial Guinean government and philanthropy seem to be succeeding: protecting biodiversity.
The Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program represents a nearly 30-year-old partnership between the National University of Equatorial Guinea and Drexel University in Philadelphia, and says it is unlike any other program in the region. Partly funded by ExxonMobil, Mobil Equatorial Guinea (a subsidiary of ExxonMobil), the United Nations Development Program and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the program pairs Drexel and National University students to do biological fieldwork and take classes for a semester in Equatorial Guinea.
Together, they protect the monkeys and sea turtles in the Gran Caldera Scientific Reserve, which is on Bioko and “one of the last truly intact reserves in Central Africa,” said Mary Katherine Gonder, the program’s director.
“Bioko is one of the places where conservation can win,” Gonder said in an interview. “The development that happened in other Central African countries didn’t happen on Bioko. While there was terrible political turmoil in ’70s and ’80s, it was beneficial in that Bioko’s wildlife didn’t suffer consequences of extensive development.” (Equatorial Guinea is also referred to as a Central African nation.)
Gonders said the program was transitioning from American management to one led by National University graduates.
The program said that it saved the last Bubi indigenous village, Ureca, and diversified economies on Bioko. The village has a nature center and artisans’ collective. Ureca women use local materials to make jewelry that is sold in luxury hotels where people who travel for the oil industry stay in Equatorial Guinea.
“The government is really interested in ecotourism, and my understanding is that the president really likes to go do ecotourism himself,” Gonder said. “I think he sees this as a way to potentially to solve the oil crisis.”
According to Gonder, “We’ve been able to put $120,000 back into the hands of the village. This is what successful conservation looks like, this is how it can benefit the local people.” Nevertheless, almost two-thirds of the country’s population live on less than $1 a day.
Equatorial Guinea’s oil reserves are expected to run out in 20 years. “Not that this a panacea, but it is a good way to diversify the economy when you start thinking about what life might be like post-oil,” Gonder added.
While Equatorial Guinea cites its commitment to sustainable development as one reason it deserves to be on the UN Security Council, critics say that is hardly enough for the country to qualify for a seat.
And though Equatorial Guinea received the African Union’s endorsement for its candidacy in 2015, Alicante of EG Justice said the country obtained the endorsement unethically.
“Unfortunately, the system of government voting in the African Union creates the incentive for governments like Equatorial Guinea to bribe people into voting for them,” Alicante said. “To the extent that there is any credibility left to the UN, admitting Equatorial Guinea to the Security Council would be the biggest discrediting blow it can inflict on itself.”
Equatorial Guinea’s candidacy is not the only pressing matter for the country. President Obiang is priming his son Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue to take over the presidency — possibly to cement his diplomatic immunity against corruption charges.
Soon after the June 2 Council election, Obiang the son is scheduled to face trial in Paris for money laundering. If he becomes president of Equatorial Guinea during the country’s term on the Council he — and not his father — could be making decisions as a member.
Kacie Candela is an assistant editor for PassBlue and a news anchor and reporter with WFUV, a public radio station in the Bronx, N.Y., where she covers the UN and other beats. Her work has won various awards from the New York State Associated Press Association, New York State Broadcasters Association, PRNDI, and the Alliance for Women in Media.