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Comment & analysis

Equatorial Guinea: Beneath the oil boom

Agustín Velloso

2007-07-18, Issue 313

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Equatorial Guinea is basking in its new found oil wealth. It is diversifying its economy, modernising its infrastructure and investing in public health and education. But underneath the increased transparency in financial practices, the government is guilty of serious human rights abuses particularly against children and young people.

Equatorial Guinea, a tiny country of 28,000 square kilometres located in Western Africa, has a GDP of US $25.69 billion (2005 est.) and a GDP growth rate (2004 est. average) of 25.7 per cent. With a population of 540,109 (July 2005 est. - same source), its flourishing economy is based on its main natural resources: petroleum and timber.

Because of this, the country has recently become a target of international attention, including from the main world institutions - World Bank (WB) and several United Nations subsidiary bodies; some international organisations – Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), European Union (EU); individual state agencies – the United States Department of State; and some big corporations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In recent reports, made public by these observers, the country enjoys 'a spectacular abundance of oil revenues' (OECD); and consequently 'the world’s highest GDP growth between 1995 and 2001' (EU).

According to information provided by governmental sources, 'in 1995, Equatorial Guinea was found to have massive reserves of petroleum. Shortly thereafter, significant reserves of natural gas were also discovered. These findings have generated substantial revenue for Equatorial Guinea (EG), revenue which is being invested in increased transparency in its financial practices, and diversifying its economy, modernising its infrastructure, strengthening its public health system, and promoting education to build a strong foundation for the future of the country'. Impressive as this data appears, the information provided by foreign agencies and country officials should be compared to information provided by locals. Then a clearer picture of the country can be seen.

On February 27, 2007, the website posted a piece of news sent by the news agency EFE with the title: 'Seminar on poverty and conflict resolution opens in EG.' The information says: 'State radio made public today the government’s plan, together with oil companies operating in EG, to organise a seminar to discuss measures to fight poverty and issues related to transparency and technology transfer.'

But not all actions conducted by the government of EG are so public. Many things the government and its ministers get up to receive much less publicity.

For instance, on that very day in the mainland town of Acurenam, a group of children were bathing on the river bank as they always have. The Deputy Minister of Agriculture, who accompanies President Teodoro Obiang on his pre-electoral tours around the district, took some time off to swim. He ordered some children to wash his car while he went swimming. Afterwards, he noticed his watch and some clothes were missing. The children did not notice anything was missing, since they do not have watches and bathe with only their shorts on as that is all they have.

The deputy minister conducted himself in private that day the same way he conducts himself in his governmental affairs; he threatened to break all the children’ legs if the watch was not returned. When it wasn’t, he took them all in their wet clothes to the police station where some children were tortured, according to reports of the Comisión Ejecutiva Nacional de Convergencia Para la Democracia Social (CPDS) - press release, February 26, 2007

16 children were detained. Most of the children were 15 years old, others were 17, eight, and the youngest was five. A similar number managed to escape. This means that 30 children were able to share in the spoils of the robbery – as a best case scenario: assuming they actually did take the watch.

Then, they could still count on a good US$60 by selling the watch on the black market. This would work out as US$2 per child. Ironically, two dollars a day is the exact amount which most people who don’t happen to be governmental ministers live on in Africa, as estimated by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) scholarly reports.

In spite of this, these children with US$2 each have more than enough to wander through mud-covered streets, to jump over open-air sewage pipes and to play count the few traffic lights and signs. Those are the only games they can play in a land without libraries, book stores and civic centres, or any real public services.

General conditions in EG have been disastrous for its most vulnerable and young population. 44.2 per cent of the population is aged under 15. According to the UNDP Human Development Report, 56 per cent do not have access to clean water. 47 per cent have no proper sanitation infrastructure. In addition, 19 per cent of children under five are not an acceptable weight for their age (1995-2003). 65 per cent of births are not attended by qualified personnel (1995-2003). The country has 25 physicians per 100,000 inhabitants (1990-2004) to deal with these health problems and many others, such as malaria, other tropical illnesses, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

A day out with the deputy minister is not that expensive for the children of Acurenam, especially if you take into account the free transport to the police station, threats, beatings and torture. All these services are covered by the Minister and President Obiang, a very generous leader as we can see. None of this is news to the US ambassador either.

On March 8, 2006, the US Department of State Report on Human Rights Practices in EG states that 'Members of the security forces tortured, beat, and otherwise abused suspects, prisoners, and opposition politicians. Further, security forces continued to arrest and detain persons arbitrarily and with impunity. Security forces often detained individuals "on orders from superiors" without any further legal process'

In other words, the state department quite accurately predicts the deputy minister’s behaviour a year beforehand. This is not a great mental feat since anyone who has seen or, worse, suffered 'conflict resolution' under Obiang, can similarly predict such things. This is something all embassies accredited to Malabo know only too well. The Department of State tells of other similar abuses of power:

'Policemen violently attacked the young people and those accompanying them, hitting them with the butts of their handguns, causing substantial injury to several of them, and leaving some girls in the group undressed in public. At least 10 were detained on police premises. They were released one week later.'

According to some foreign sources, never mind government’s sources, it seems that Equatorial Guinea is moving in the last years, in particular during the oil boom years, slowly but soundly, to higher standards of social and political development. Without doubt, credit has to be given to meetings held by EG ministers and UN high officials, business done by oil companies and cooperation programmes carried out by Western governments. Obiang is also a strong contributor to the wellbeing of his countrymen, mainly through his trips to the United States, France and Spain, where he always finds support for his policies.

But above all, most of the credit rests with foreign journalists. Their almost constant press coverage, and never ending courage to stand up to the oil companies have helped make Equatorial Guinea the household name around the world it has obviously become.

It is a shame that the children of Acurenam are so ungrateful and spend their time stealing from defenceless deputy ministers. Let us just hope that police station visits and their broken legs help them appreciate all that is done by Obiang, his government, and the international press in their name. Then, maybe in years to come they will be able to live on US$2.10 a day.

* Agustin Velloso, UNED, Facultad de Educacion, Paseo Senda del Rey, nº 728040-Madrid, Spain.

* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at

The English translation of the article by the author was reviewed by David Anderson, University of Oxford.

This piece was originally published in Cross Currents:

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