Waiting for Godot in Equatorial Guinea … the Rest of the World Waits Too

Teodoro Obiang, the President with a clear and constant policy

While members of the opposition to President Teodoro Obiang’s regime are detained and tortured in prison merely for being in opposition, international human rights organizations are denied entry to Equatorial Guinea. While some are set free with neither charges nor trial or else pardoned after a lapse of time, subsequently they are fined and their movement restricted to their hometowns. While the supposed leader of a coup d’état, Severo Moto, is tried in absentia, a handful of associates are left to rely exclusively on the mercy of the court, their fate decided by the Chief Justice of the Nation, who, not by accident, presides over the trial (Art. 86 of Equatorial Guinea’s Fundamental Law).

If someone were to bet 100 Euros that this account referred to events taking place in June 2008 they would lose. The events in question took place in 1997, eleven years ago. An Amnesty International Release on Equatorial Guinea (AI INDEX: AFR 24/07/97), published on October 14th 1997 gives a complete account of the events in question.

It seems the long decade since those events has changed nothing. The failed coup has been repeated with the same protagonist, the regime continues imprisoning and torturing, Obiang continues in power and Amnesty International never fails to publish similar reports year in, year out. However a couple of changes have in fact taken place and for the moment one can say that the first of them is for the worse.

This first change is that Obiang’s political acuity has sharpened. However much one dislikes the fact, he is smarter than one might want to admit. He toys with his equals around the world and with his rivals at home. Without counting the high official posts he held during the precious regime of his uncle Francisco Macias, Obiang has been in power for 30 years. In this time, he has made himself immensely rich and has enriched his family. He occupies an accepted place in the international community. He has wiped out the meagre opposition and the only doubts relating to his future stem from his health and his succession, neither of which are completely under his control.

Amnesty International denounced in their 1997 report that the denial of access for international human rights organizations to the country “contradicts the policy of openness in relation to human rights issues publicly promised by President Obiang in February 1997.”

While Obiang’s policy of broken promises has lasted for more than 10 years, his policy on torture is much older. In 1978 Amnesty International regarded it as a systematic practice to the point that in its March Bulletin of that year it defined Equatorial Guinea as “a huge torture camp whose only exit is the cemetery.” A report published in 1990 with the title Tortures in Equatorial Guinea, collected information for the twenty years from 1968 to 1988.

The Spanish Socialist Workers Party government: the democracy of never-too-much dialogue

Obiang only fools people who let themselves be fooled. Pronouncements made from time by Spain’s Foreign Minister Moratinos on “helping, accompanying, offering incentives and motivating a country like Equatorial Guinea to move forward the process of democratization and defence of Human Rights”, once more display the Kingdom of Spain as a dummy State led by the interests of others and in contradiction to the aspirations of its Constitution.

For years Moratinos has travelled to Equatorial Guinea or received Obiang in Spain. Still, his opinion on “advances in the democratization process” is as valuable today as those of the US entertainment magazine Parade which also observes some progress. It rates Obiang thirteenth in the list of the world’s worst dictators after having placed him eleventh in 2007 and tenth in 2006.

The main difference is that the magazine describes Obiang outright as a dictator and does not propose dialogue about it. Meanwhile, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party seems to be waiting for another decade to pass just so as to be completely sure before uttering the word. Maybe for that reason the magazine has a circulation of 42 million while the Minister’s Press releases are not even read by his own advisors. Nothing else explains really the publication of his “somewhat impassioned” opinion on Obiang’s last visit to Spain.

Obiang has got to where he is by administering dose after dose of broken promises wherever necessary, wrapped up in oil contracts. The result has been murder, torture and other serious human rights violations, but still Moratinos gets all impassioned when he and Obiang meet up. It is true that his counterparts in the US receive Obiang as a “good friend” and in China and other countries they greet him with the red carpet, but that does not make Obiang any less a criminal. Rather it turns those hosts of his into aiders, abettors and accomplices of his barbarism.

If Obiang’s declarations no longer fool Foreign Ministers and Presidents, those of Moratinos fool no one either. Who, outside the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, believes that government policy towards Equatorial Guinea is adequate in the light of the last thirty years? Nonetheless, on May 29th this year, shortly after the rigged elections held in Equatorial Guinea, the government again presented in the Congress of Deputies its routine litany: “our only remedy is to continue insisting on a constructive dialogue”.

The opposition: still waiting for news on Nkrumah, Mandela, Lumumba and Biko

The second change has taken place in the political opposition. The leaders of the Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS) that held two seats in Equatorial Guinea’s 100-seat parliament — the remainder being taken up by Obiang’s party members — are going through moments of political and personal anguish. Not surprisingly, since they ended up with just one seat, continue to be harassed as usual and have been abandoned by the international community, which prefers oil in the hand to democracy on the wing.

The opposition has shown its desperation and fury via various communiqués from its National Executive over the last month. These offer a mixture of denunciations, laments, meditations after the fact on what happened, vague accusations, unattainable proposals and reflections lacking self-criticism.

The CPDS denounces that “the electoral process of Sunday May 4th 2008 in Equatorial Guinea surpassed all forecasts of the brutality of the fraud prepared by Obiang and his regime, marking a clear regression in the country’s political evolution.”

The CPDS laments the betrayal of the international community, especially Spain and the United States since the elections “were not held in conditions of liberty, transparency and equality as was expected by the Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos or as the United States ambassador in the country intended.”

The European Union is not immune from the attacks since the release of funds (more than Euros 10m) intended for Equatorial Guinea assigned to the ninth European Development Fund to carry out projects in areas like human rights and good governance is regarded by the CPDS as “the strongest insult that could be received”.

The CPDS Executive pauses to meditate on “the unhappy history of Equatorial Guinea that repeats itself cyclically” because in 2002 “when Equatorial Guinea most needed the UN, this body decided to withdraw, as if by chance, the Special Representative for Equatorial Guinea, leaving the population defenceless and at the mercy of the arbitrary will of Obiang. Many of the people arbitrarily detained then have only just been pardoned in June.”

Finally, they offer a very negative judgement on the policy of dialogue. They consider that “the rapprochements (by its bilateral and multilateral partners) made towards the regime that governs Equatorial Guinea are made for other reasons, not expressed in public declarations, perhaps possibly the benefits obtained from the situation of a totalitarian and despotic regime, not respectful of people’s rights, reasons which favour the individuals, institutions or countries that make such rapprochements, which unscrupulously damage the legitimate interests of the people of Equatorial Guinea, their right to live in freedom and to benefit from their natural resources.”

Despite admitting their desperate political situation they still “call on the international community, particularly the multilateral and bilateral partners represented in Equatorial Guinea to recognise that their silence at the repression and all the abuses perpetrated by Obiang and his regime on the people of Equatorial Guinea, along with all the arbitrary abuses inflicted on the opposition and on dissidents in the country seem to amount to complicity in the damage the regime thus inflicts on this people. The CPDS would like to see a pronouncement on what happened in this country on May 4th this year, as well as on the post-election harassment that followed.”

What the CPDS describes is correct. It even understates things. It has received the biggest blow in its history not only for having lost one of its two seats at the hands of its enemies but because it has been abandoned by those it considered its friends. But in that case, why go running to them once more?

It does not matter now that what happened was the chronicle of an abandonment foreseeable beforehand and warned of at the time. But what sense does it make to make new appeals that will themselves also be ignored? It hardly makes any difference now to point out that the international community is an accomplice of the regime against the country’s people. But more than anything, it does nothing to lift the population of Equatorial Guinea out of their shameful situation.

The May 2008 elections have confirmed, if any further confirmation was necessary, that the political game played so far with such poor cards by the CPDS against experienced criminals, bought judges and with an audience of observers watching out for their own interests, is over.

It is not the moment for lament or roundabout accusations. If the CPDS is not faithful to the logic of its own analysis of the situation and gets caught up in absurd reproaches and threats that show up its weakness even more, not only will it be finished but, as its own National Executive says of other actors involved, it runs the risk of being an accomplice in Obiang’s game.

The struggle for the rights of Africans in Africa has not been achieved mainly or even most importantly in the sessions of corrupt parliaments or in meetings in offices in Madrid or Washington with diplomats concerned about the people of Equatorial Guinea in words but not in fact. Nor, obviously, has the struggle advanced by repeating over and over again to people who have not the least idea of the suffering of people in Equatorial Guinea that “the CPDS is the only democratic opposition and seeks political change by peaceful means…”

The political strategy faced with murderers, their accomplices and look-outs cannot consist of touring Europe and the United States to complain to people without the least intention of losing their own benefits so as to promote the rights of others. Political action cannot base itself on making speeches day after day in a parliament lacking legitimacy to deputies who only heed to the person that pays them.

To design a new political action it is more useful to consider the pantheon of African leaders. Nkrumah based his political struggle on organizing the masses, which cost him repeated spells in detention. Mandela directed a political transition but not without first insisting on the right to self-defence of the oppressed (what Western politicians call violence) to the Supreme Court in Pretoria in 1964, for which he was condemned to life imprisonment. Lumumba was assassinated by the CIA, the armed wing of the United States government that specialises in murdering popular leaders the world over for their opposition to imperialism. Biko managed successfully to mobilise the inhabitants of South African cities before being assassinated in police custody.

Conclusion: Neither dialogue with Obiang nor political tours by the opposition will bring human rights to Equatorial Guinea

It is told that years ago an old Equatorial Guinean, unhappy at his country’s evolution on which a Spanish person was talking asked, “Hey, this independence stuff, how long does it last?” One has to suppose that the passage of time has given him the answer, although doubtless thousands of Equatorial Guineans are asking the same question now about this democracy stuff.

Democracy does not exist in Equatorial Guinea nor will it under the current dictatorial circumstances prolonged by external help from powerful economic interests in exchange for oil.

Once the political game is exhausted, or what is no more than the trappings of a democratic system, for Equatorial Guineans to be able to see human rights respected, requires a resistance struggle to be carried through against the individuals who violate people’s rights and those who abet them.

In other words, rights are taken, not given. That most likely means dropping certain useless friendships and support, working more in the street and in villages than in Parliament and abandoning the parody of democracy for the drama of popular struggle.

It is essential not to compromise the enduring right of peoples and individuals to a life of liberty, justice and peace via a political slogan to the liking of corrupt leaders like “a peaceful political alternative” — fine for the oppressor, not so great for the oppressed.

Agustín Velloso is Professor of Education Sciences at the National Univeristy of Education in Madrid. His English version of this article was revised by toni solo. Read other articles by Agustín.