A trip by the United Nations Security Council to the Ivory Coast and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa to promote state sovereignty; a visit to the UN from one of Africa’s longest-serving head of state, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo; and discussions on arms and piracy: these are the big items on Equatorial Guinea’s menu this month for its first rotating presidency in the Security Council.
After 50 years of independence and 50 years at the UN — including 40 under Obiang — pressure is high for the West African nation to impress its fellow world diplomats in its presidency in February. Equatorial Guinea joined the Council as an elected member for a two-year term in 2018.
When Obiang first gave a speech to the UN, in 1985, he said that it needed to be reformed, and he asked for help from the international community to build democratic institutions in his country, the sole Spanish-speaking one in Africa. It consists of a few offshore islands in the Gulf of Guinea and mainland territory, together the size of Belgium.
Decades later, Equatorial Guinea is by many standards an economically and democratically deprived country. Obiang has overseen a rapidly growing oil-based economy, since that natural resource was discovered in 1996, 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.
According to data from Freedom House, a democratic-watchdog group financed partly by the United States government, most of the money coming from natural resources in Equatorial Guinea is concentrated in the president’s family. PassBlue reported in May 2017 that the country had most likely bribed its way to a seat on the Security Council.
Since the discovery of oil and gas reserves, 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. Yet 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, according to Human Rights Watch, but it doesn’t make its budgets public, so it is hard to know where the money goes.
Moreover, the country severely restricts visitors from outside the country, except generally for Americans, as ExxonMobil is the largest oil investor in the nation.
Still, Ambassador Anatolio Ndong Mba, who has represented his country at the UN since 2010, thinks Equatorial Guinea has much to teach his Security Council colleagues this month. PassBlue interviewed the ambassador to discuss his country’s evolution, ambitions and the trip to West Africa.
As part of our monthly series, called Security Council Presidency, PassBlue has profiled UN ambassadors whose countries have held the rotating presidency of the Council, since July 2018: Sweden, Britain, US, Bolivia, China, Ivory Coast (or Côte d’Ivoire) and Dominican Republic. The column is meant to be an informative capsule of not only the country’s ambassador but also the ambitions of the country occupying the president’s seat. A short country profile is part of our feature. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Equatorial Guinea’s Ambassador to the UN: Anatolio Ndong Mba, 72
Envoy to the UN Since: 2010
Languages: Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, Arabic (Equatorial Guinea has three official languages: Spanish, French and Portuguese)
Education: Undergraduate degree in agricultural sciences from the Zagazig University in Egypt and several diplomas in animal production and rural credit.
His story, briefly: Ndong Mba was born on July 3, 1946, in Mbini, a coastal town of about 14,000 inhabitants, about 30 miles from Bata, the largest city, also on the mainland. After obtaining his education, he worked in several government posts related to agriculture, livestock, fisheries and forestry.
“I landed here in a strange way,” Ndong Mba explained. “I studied livestock and I’ve served as secretary minister of agriculture, minister of planning and deputy minister finance, minister of fisheries in my country.”
He was recruited by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN in 1997, first posted in Guinea-Bissau, a Portuguese-speaking country also on the Atlantic coast, for four years. He then worked for the agency regionally in Accra, Ghana, for four years. The ambassador moved on to FAO posts in Angola and São Tomé and Príncipe for four years, as well as Rwanda.
In 2008, when he was 62, Mdong Mga was put in “mandatory retirement” by the UN, he said, but it didn’t last long: he represented the FAO in Djibouti as a consultant for a few months, before being appointed as an ambassador of his country to the UN in December 2009.
“Having worked for 12 years as an [FAO] representative, I had some experience in working with the United Nations,” he told PassBlue.
Ndong Mga is married and has five children and six grandchildren: three of whom are working in Equatorial Guinea, after studying in Spain (in the oil, new technologies and insurance industries). Two others are twins, studying in the US (at Long Island University and in San Antonio, Tex.)
How do you like New York City? It’s a city of everybody. It’s a city that does not sleep. I live in White Plains [Westchester County] and I come every morning to the office, so I like to live here. It’s a nice place where you can find all types of food, lots of friends, see lots of interesting people, a lot of high-profile personalities. Even here, you can buy food from home! You can eat any time I want to.
What are Equatorial Guinea’s priorities for the presidency and special events planned? We have only one opportunity to be chairman, so it’s going to be very hectic. Our head of state [Obiang] will chair the first high-level debate, on the impact of mercenary activities on peace and stability in Central and West Africa [on Feb. 4]. On Feb. 5, we have a ministerial debate on transnational maritime crime — piracy. [In the Feb. 4 session, Obiang said his country has been a victim of five attempts of “mercenary incursions” to overthrow his government and gain control of natural resources, including in 2017 to assassinate him personally.]
We will have an open, high-level debate on Feb. 27 on silencing the guns [arms trade] in Africa, introduced by the African Union with regional cooperation. In addition, we have issues concerning the Middle East — Syria, Yemen; Africa — the Central African Republic; and Europe — like Kosovo. We also have a field trip to Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea-Bissau [Feb. 14-17]. The trip to Côte d’Ivoire is to discuss how to exit from a crisis in a successful way; we will be there for a day and a half. [A UN peacekeeping mission closed in the country in 2017, after a civil war.]
Then we move to Guinea-Bissau to discuss the legislative election for mid-March and to encourage the people there to have the election in a peaceful, inclusive and transparent manner for a positive outcome. [The presidential election is supposed to be held in the summer.]
Since 2011, Guinea-Bissau has been stuck in chronic institutional instability. Certain individuals in Guinea-Bissau have been sanctioned by the UN Security Council, and we hope that after the two elections, taking into account the outcomes, the sanctions can be lifted and the country can embark on the peaceful process of building institutions. It has a very high potential in natural resources, agriculture and fisheries, and it could contribute to the economy of West Africa.
What does Equatorial Guinea bring to the Security Council? A small but strong voice on the need to solve conflicts in a peaceful way, through consultation, avoiding confrontation and strong positions against the use of weapons of mass destruction and chemical weapons. Also, we contribute a lot, as part of 10 elected members, to work together to have one voice on key issues. We take decisions and make our opinions based on principles. We have strong principles regarding sovereignty of the state, conflict prevention and resolution through pacific ways through dialogue. This has been our voice in the Security Council.
Who are your closest allies on the Council? We don’t have allies, colleagues work together towards fulfilling the mandate. We have allies on certain issues, then we’ll work together no matter who they are. We have Africa priorities and national priorities. In African issues — conflicts — we are obliged to go along with the priorities of the African Union. We have some national priorities.
How are you promoting women’s rights in the Council? Gender is a very important issue for us . . . because in Equatorial Guinea we believe that women can play key roles in solving conflict, working in peacekeeping missions. [Women] should not be left aside but fully involved in all processes regarding conflict negotiations.
When President Obiang spoke at the UN in 1985, he said that the Security Council needed major reforms. He said it again when he came in 2018. What changes did he have in mind? We think that the Council is not representing as it should be. That’s why the African Union has created the Committee of 10 to participate in negotiations to reform the Council. We think that it’s a historic injustice that Africa is the only region without permanent representation in the Security Council. We are asking for two permanent representatives and five elected members. If you consider that more than 65, 70 percent on the Security Council agenda are African issues, it means Africa is not participating fully in the decisions made on its own continent. The main issue is the veto issue, and it’s very difficult to let it go! If there’s a veto, then there should be a veto for all. If there is no veto, then no veto for all!
In 1985, President Obiang also asked the UN help to help his country build democratic institutions. Did it work out? Yes, we have a strong relationship with the UN and it’s been for many years. We’ve had an electoral process for many years, and we’re very very happy with that. Equatorial Guinea has a lot of agreements and relationships with many countries. Today we have the Senate, Parliament, Ombudsman. Women have been important: the chair of the Senate is a women, the vice-chair of Parliament is a woman.
What could be done better for your country? Any system could be improved. Even here [in America], I don’t really understand the system, it’s complicated. So far, our process is good. Our president at the beginning was calling it “democratic learning”; since 1982-83, we’ve had a multiparty system. Then, an election every year for Senate, Parliament; local elections in cities and presidential elections.
Head of State: President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (since 1979, the longest-serving leader in Africa)
Foreign Affairs Minister: Simeón Oyono Esono Angue
Type of Government: Constitutional democratic republic (Freedom House classified the country as “not free,” because it said it did not hold free and fair elections, has no political pluralism or functioning government)
Year Equatorial Guinea Joined the UN: 1968
Years in the Security Council: 2018-2019
Population: 1.2 million
Memberships in Regional Groups: African Union, African Development Bank, Group of 77 (G77), International Organization of Francophonie
Adult Literacy Rate: 95 percent (2014)
Maternal Death Rate: 86.6/100,000 (2015) (by comparison, the US rate is 26.4/100,000 (2017)
GDP per Capita: $9,700 (2017); US: $59,531; world: $10,172
Emissions (tons of CO2/year) per capita: 5.3; US, 16.0 (world average, 5)
Total Contributions to annual UN Operating Budget (rounded, per capita): $490,000 (2018-2019); by comparison, Germany, $187 million
Total Contributions to annual UN Peacekeeping Budget (rounded): $67,000; by comparison, Germany, $427 million
Electric Power Consumption, per 1,ooo kWh per capita/year: N/A (world average: 3.1 kWh; US, 13.0)
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.