This week, leaders from across Africa descended on Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, the site of the 17th African Union Summit, to discuss the challenges confronting African growth, development, and stability. Hosting the summit represented the Equatoguinean government’s latest public relations coup in its aggressive campaign to polish its tarnished image domestically and internationally. Africa’s second longest serving head-of-state after Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Equatoguinean president Teodoro Obiang Nguema, appears to be taking a page out of Gaddafi’s playbook and using the country’s sizable oil largesse to reinvent himself as a reformer and humanitarian.
The government’s development plan prioritizes high-cost, highly visible infrastructure showpieces. The country can now boast two of the most advanced medical facilities on the continent, yet the quality of medical care at the smaller hospitals and clinics used by most citizens remains poor. Sipopo, the 580 million Euro ($830 million) luxury complex built specifically to host this week’s summit, boasts 52 beachside residential villas, an 18-hole golf course, a spa, a mile-long private beach, a conference center, and a heliport. Visitors travel the short distance from downtown Malabo on a new road, constructed at a cost of 86 million Euros (US$120 million).
Meanwhile, spending on education in 2008, the most recent year for which the figure could be calculated since the government does not publish budgetary information, was approximately $200 million, less than one quarter of the cost of Sipopo. A walk through one of Bata’s or Malabo’s many poor neighborhoods reveals trash littered streets, homes without reliable electricity and running water, and citizens worn down by decades of political repression.
The government appears unfazed by empirical evidence that clearly shows the existence of poverty and human rights abuses. In a June 5 speech to commemorate his birthday, president Obiang asserted that “there are no violations of human rights” in Equatorial Guinea, despite numerous reports, including by the United Nations Human Rights Council, to the contrary. Jeronimo Osa Osa Ecoro, a government spokesman, insists that “there is no poverty in Equatorial Guinea.”
The government is aggressively promoting the idea that its policies reflect what is best for all Equatoguineans. Since 2000, the government has spent more than $13 million on lobbying and public relations firms in Washington, DC. Last month, the government, ranked by Freedom House as one of the “worst of the worst” for political and civil liberties, began worldwide satellite broadcast of the country’s state-controlled National Television of Equatorial Guinea in an effort to proactively shape the international community’s perceptions of the country. This followed on the heels of the release (independent of the EG government) of a polished, 30 minute “destination documentary” entitled “Portrait of a Nation: Equatorial Guinea,” that aired on CNBC Europe in April and May. The film was produced by the Canadian firm EPIC Global Media and highlights the country’s shining new infrastructure and interviews with government officials extolling the virtues of their country.
Glaringly absent from the video, however, are the voices of ordinary Equatoguineans daily affected by the poverty and repression that continues to mark the nearly 32 year reign of president Obiang. Glaringly absent are the ubiquitous shantytowns where residents suffer the tropical climate without potable water, electricity, or affordable, quality health care. On June 11, just two weeks before the summit, security agents deleted a German television crew’s footage of children playing soccer in an impoverished neighborhood in Malabo, claiming that it showed the country in an unfavorable light.
These contradictions, however, did not prevent African leaders from electing president Obiang in January to be the chairman of the African Union and allowing him to host its biannual summit. At odds with the summit’s theme “Accelerating Youth Empowerment for Sustainable Development,” the Equatoguinean government closed the nation’s schools one month early and detained more than 100 students prior to the summit, for reasons the government has failed to publicly explain. The government also failed to authorize the parallel civil society events for domestic and foreign groups that traditionally occur at African Union summits, continuing a well-established pattern of hindering the activities of autonomous civil society organizations inside the country.
In his January 30, 2011 inaugural speech at the African Union, president Obiang stressed that Africa must assume a leading role in the “promotion of democracy and good governance.” Yet numerous times since that speech his government has denied its citizens the constitutionally guaranteed right to hold peaceful demonstrations. Furthermore, in February, the government ordered state-controlled media to cease reporting on the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.
In his speech to the heads of state in attendance at this week’s summit, president Obiang seemed to justify his government’s crackdown on public demonstrations by warning that outside “agents” are “manipulating the innocence and the good faith of our youth and inexperienced population to unnecessarily cause sterile revolutions. This is the case of my country, Equatorial Guinea, which is victimized by a systematic campaign of misinformation by these agents.”
African and international leaders should not let president Obiang continue to play fast and loose with the facts. All countries, including Equatorial Guinea, have poverty. No government, including president Obiang’s, is innocent of human rights abuses. The civil liberties of all citizens, including Equatoguineans, should be protected and promoted. Citizens must be allowed to express their voices and take a more active role in choosing their destinies. Pretending otherwise serves to perpetuate injustice and prevents the Equatoguinean government from enacting reforms that will improve the wellbeing of ordinary Equatoguineans.
Tutu Alicante, an Equatoguinean, is the executive director of EG Justice.