Equatorial Guinea 2009: 30 Years with Obiang and 20 with the Opposition

Next August, the 3rd, few in Equatorial Guinea will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the coup d’état led by Teodoro Obiang Nguema against Macias Nguema, his uncle and the head of the State. Obiang’s government refers to what happened with these words:

“In 1979, after the devastation of a decade under the tyrannical President Macias, then-Lieutenant Colonel Obiang took control of the government and was named President of the Supreme Military Council.”

What did Obiang do while working under Macias’ orders to stop the decade old devastation?

“In 1969 –the official history continues – Obiang becomes the National Guard Liuetenant, with all the forces and military quarters based in Malabo under his control.”

He became commander in chief of the Armed Forces in 1975, and “in 1979 a presidential decree made him vice-minister of the Popular Armed Forces.”

What did Obiang do in these 30 years to avoid another dictatorship?

In 1982, “Obiang became President of the Republic for an initial seven-year term. He was re-elected to additional terms in 1989, 1996 and 2003. (…) President Obiang won re-election once again in 1996. Infrastructure and housing is now being rebuilt more quickly as new water, sewage and drainage are being installed and hundreds of miles of new roadways are being built to connect all of Equatorial Guinea’s cities and towns. Healthcare and education also top the agenda as new, modern state-of-art hospitals and clinics are being built and staffed and teachers are being trained to better teach students.”

Buried under this mountain of promises about public works, lies one certain fact: Obiang wins election after election with more than 95% of the votes. In the 2002 presidential elections he got 97%, in the 2004 legislative and local elections he won 98 out of the 100 parliament seats plus 237 out of the 244 country’s municipalities. In the 2008 legislative elections he got 99 seats.

The main difference between the deposed president and the current one, is that Obiang knows how to read the signs of the times and to adapt himself accordingly. This has allowed him to hold on to power for thirty years, count on foreign support and enrich himself enormously thanks to the oil industry, also under his control.

The past thirty years can indeed be described as golden thirty years for Obiang, but not for the great majority of Equatorial Guinea’s inhabitants. Country reports published by the World Bank, the European Union and some of the United Nations agencies, let alone those by non governmental organisations, especially those devoted to human rights and human development, present a quite different reality.

Obiang is willing to play the democratic game in front of the international community, because in each game he marks the cards and keeps the best while deals the rest.

If appearances have to be kept up of regular elections, of honouring international treaties, of adhering to foreign initiatives on transparency, accountability and good governance, for Obiang this is no problem. He lets the opposition win a parliamentary seat, he signs international treaties only to honour them in the breach, and varnishes his masterwork with glowing propaganda about the government’s good works.

Obiang has many good friends who just happen to govern powerful countries. These convince public opinion that Obiang’s scam is legitimate and only needs a few tweaks and minor improvements. To that end, they offer technical assistance and cooperation, while making clear there is no great urgency. Since oil production started in Equatorial Guinea in the mid 90s, his friends have become even more reliable than ever, despite knowing the reality all too well:

The 2004 Department of State report on Equatorial Guinea accurately summarised its political situation: “Citizens did not have the ability to change their government peacefully.”

In 2009 the Department refers to the country as a “nominally multi-party Republic with strong domination by the executive branch.”

For his part, Obiang thinks it wise to take preventive measures. He sends soldiers and policemen to assassinate, kidnap and torture his “enemies”, and in general to make life difficult for political opponents.

In spite of this and of the fact that there is no shortage of people willing to get their share of the enormous oil cake in exchange for loyalty, some still remain who do not give up. Some of these string along with Obiang’s pretense of democracy. Others prefer to try and oust him.

Considering their actions so far, it can safely be said that Obiang has clearly defeated them all. He intimidates, persecutes and entertains members of the first group, according to his whims. He attacks members of the second whenever he can. These have managed to discomfit him once, but Obiang’s friends and luck have been on his side.

Neither group of the opposition can claim that their respective strategies have come anywhere close to achieving their goals. The reverse is true, as chances of success seem to be inversely proportional to the increase in their actions.

Playing Obiang’s democracy game is not an easy task. If a player does not perform as expected, other players will not take them seriously. Equatorial Guinea’s leader of the parliamentary opposition declares again and again to the international community, to the media, to various international political institutions, that his party plays by Obiang’s rules and also reassures the world that his party will only use non-violent means to achieve power.

But if the international community does not demand that Obiang play by internationally accepted rules to stay in power, why does the opposition think they have to do so? It seems the international community accepts opposition to Obiang as long as its leaders give up their people’s right to resist the Obiang regime’s human rights violations.

Philosophers dealt with the problem of using legitimate violence against an aggression many centuries ago. Since the 13th century it is accepted that “in the case of a deadly attack, there is more obligation to protect one’s own life than the attacker’s.”

If a political party which opposes a never ending dictatorship renounces legitimate defence against its violence, it is delegitimizing itself, because it actually helps the dictatorship it claims to oppose. When this party seeks support from international actors, despite their party’s poor record of resistance and even knowing full well their petition will be met with indifference, they are digging their own political grave.

It is true that a legitimate defence requires another condition, namely that there are reasonable chances of success. In this respect it has to be noted that it is all about not giving up the right to legitimate resistance. Further, there can be no likelihood of success if the possibility of resistance is totally abandoned.

The non-parliamentary opposition, made up of several small groups, has not renounced political violence. But its failure, too, is obvious and due mainly to lack of popular, militant support, to splits and internecine fighting and other shortcomings.

The option of a coup d’état has not yielded useful results. Nor is there much chance that it will. The lack of a popular militia and bad planning, along with the use of foreign mercenaries, explain the failure. Day after day, Obiang increases his own security, and he can count on foreign support. It seems that only a palace coup, like the one Obiang himself authored 30 years ago, is likely to succeed.

It can be said that the opposition too, like Obiang, have placed their hopes in foreign hands. The difference between the two camps is that European and North American Presidents and Prime Ministers prefer oil in their own countries to ensuring human rights in Equatorial Guinea.

The struggle carried out by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) is illuminating. The oil plunder plus the damages it causes to the Delta physical conditions and to its inhabitants’ health, together with the government’s repression, are the reasons the MEND mentions to explain its attacks against the interests of the foreign companies that benefit from the oil industry with the consent of the government.

What is taking place in Nigeria, taking into account its much bigger size, is similar to what happens in Equatorial Guinea: “Since 1970, $350 billion in oil revenue has flowed to Nigeria, yet 75% of Nigerians live on less than $1 a day. (…) Nigerian governments have negotiated joint ventures with multinational companies for unregulated oil production since 1958. Over 50 years of exploitation in the Niger Delta has resulted in systematic human rights abuses and environmental devastation.”

Against this the MEND has declared its aims: reparations for environmental damage and also control of the Delta’s natural riches. It has also made public its means: “Leave our land while you can or die in it. Our aim is to totally destroy the capacity of the Nigerian government to export oil.”

In recent years, its achievements have been made known. The government, heeding a request by the big oil companies, sent the army to violently repress the Delta people protests, which resulted in thousands of dead, tortured and prisoners.

Popular resistance, however, kept up the struggle and the MEND was created. It has forced cuts in oil production from almost two and half million barrels per day to less than one and a half.

Unlike what is taking place in Equatorial Guinea, the Nigerian government does not despise the MEND. This is not a gift from the government –it maintains its military actions against the guerrillas- but the MEND, through its resistance, has placed itself in a position that deserves its enemy’s respect. Nowadays, both camps are holding conversations.

Meanwhile, Obiang represses the opposition parties that he so despises. At the same time, the only opposition leader with a seat in parliament, made public a communiqué after the attack against the president’s palace in Malabo that took place last February, the 17th, 2009, which was disingenuously attributed to the MEND by the government.

The party “congratulates the State Security and Armed Forces for their quick and efficient response and declares its support and solidarity with them.” It also reiterates once again “that (the party) rejects all movements aimed to achieve power through violence.”

While the Equatorial Guinea parliament unanimously declares the MEND “a terrorist group made up of mercenaries with evil intentions and recommends maximum repression,” Nigeria president has offer the MEND an amnesty. This offer is supported by many, including Nobel prize winner Wole Soyinka.

Equatorial Guinea politicians, both in power and in opposition, might do well to pay attention to what Soyinka’s said about Nigerian politicians: “In tandem with his predecessor Olusegun, President Umaru Yar’Adua must be made to recognize that he shoulders a moral and political responsibility for failure to make a decisive breakthrough in the quest to terminate hostilities in the Delta region. Much of the toll of death and destruction could, and would have been avoided if only these two rulers had lived up to their charge.

These words, of course, are also relevant to those in Europe and North America who “accompany Obiang in his efforts to improve democracy in Equatorial Guinea” and to those who claim to support the opposition camp in its political activity.

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.