U.S. renews ties with repressive Equatorial Guinea: rich in oil, poor in human rights
(11-16) 22:22 PST DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Equatorial Guinea’s president had his opponents imprisoned and tortured, had his presidential predecessor executed by firing squad, helped himself to the state treasury at will. State radio recently declared him “like God.”
Human Rights Watch
Teodoro Obiang might seem an unlikely candidate for warmer relations with Washington, except for one thing — his tiny West African country’s got a tremendous amount of oil.
With America looking increasingly for alternatives to oil from the Middle East, West Africa — and dictators like Obiang — aren’t looking so bad.
To the dismay of human rights activists, Washington reopened its embassy on the tropical country’s island capital of Malabo last month after an eight-year shutdown.
Although no U.S. ambassador is serving in Malabo, Obiang’s critics say reopening of the embassy gives tacit approval to a repressive regime that lets little of the country’s newfound oil wealth trickle down to its 500,000 people, who are among the poorest on Earth.
“It sends the wrong signal, because we don’t think there’s been any improvement in terms of governance and the human rights record,” said Sarah Wykes, an oil expert at the London-based rights group Global Witness.
American diplomats say the embassy was reopened partly to provide consular services to the growing community of 3,000-5,000 American oil workers. They also say it’s better to try to change governmental behavior with direct contacts.
In 1993, the then-U.S. ambassador in Malabo took a tough stand against Equatorial Guinea’s rights abuses, and received an anonymous note saying he would return to the United States “as a corpse.”
Two years later, the embassy was closed. Washington cited budget constraints, but the move was widely seen as a rebuke to Obiang.
American oil firms were still around, though, and a few weeks later they discovered large offshore oil deposits in the area.
These days, Obiang speaks of his nation becoming “the Kuwait of Africa,” and he’s not far off the mark.
West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea already supplies the United States with 15 percent of its oil imports, and analysts say that share could grow to 25 percent by 2015.
The oil boom has transformed Equatorial Guinea’s economy. Oil revenues now account for more than 60 percent of the gross national product, which once rested on a precarious foundation of fishing, forestry and small cocoa and coffee crops.
Over the last eight years, the former Spanish colony has seen more than $3 billion in direct investment from U.S. businesses, more than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa except Nigeria and Angola, two other resource-rich nations, says the Heritage Foundation, a U.S. think tank.
Obiang keeps state oil proceeds a secret, and critics accuse him and other top officials of funneling hundreds of millions of dollars of oil money into private accounts in foreign banks.
“The regime’s lack of financial capacity and control and preference for cash up front means effectively that the population is not getting its fair share of the oil wealth,” Wykes said. “And U.S. oil companies are benefiting from this situation.”
She estimates oil revenues in Equatorial Guinea this year could reach $700 million.
“If you talk to anybody in Equatorial Guinea, they’ll say, ‘We don’t have access to that’ oil wealth,” said Marise Castro, a researcher at Amnesty International in London.
The country is so poor that many of its people live off what fruit they can yank off trees and what meat they can kill in the forests. Commerce outside the capital is largely limited to hunters lining dirt roads, selling charred bush-meat on sticks.
Citing a U.N. human rights report that said 65 percent of people in the country were living in “extreme poverty,” Wykes said there was “very little evidence the oil wealth has benefited the general population.”
It appears, in fact, only to be making Obiang and his associates stronger.
In July, state radio announced that Obiang, “in permanent contact with the Almighty,” was “like God in heaven” who has “all power over men and things,” according to the British Broadcasting Corp.
Freedom House has called Equatorial Guinea one of the most “violently repressive societies” in the world.
Human rights groups say its government regularly arrests and tortures its critics.
The U.S. State Department said Obiang’s re-election last year was “marred by extensive fraud and intimidation. His government claimed a Saddam Hussein-style 97 percent ‘yes’ vote.
An American spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, speaking on condition he not be identified further, acknowledged there are problems in Equatorial Guinea, but said the best way to effect change is to have a presence on the ground, not to watch events unfold from afar.
“There’s really so many Americans there now and there are so many interests,” the official said. “There’s a lot more that we have now in common.”