With such a vast world to explore, understanding the politics, history and culture of many of the world’s nations does not happen amongst the general population. When the focus is on Africa too often the countries blur into one mass simply known as Africa. There are obvious exceptions to this rule; Kenya, Somalia, South Africa and Sudan have all stood out from the crowd, but there are others that lie forgotten is the world media. Countries like Burundi, Central African Republic and Benin, to name a few, are not well-known, publicly discussed or debated about.
African discourse tends to focus on the ‘big nations’, particularly where there has been British or French colonial legacy and in doing so it leaves out other nations that are actually critically important and some of the most interesting contemporary nations in the world. One such nation is Equatorial Guinea.
This nation is one of the smallest in mainland Africa and, largely because of this, has been sidelined by other nations in Central and West Africa including Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However this country is far more important than its size would suggest. Here are four basic facts as to why Equatorial Guinea is so important in African and World politics:
- One of Africa’s leading oil-producing nations.
- Currently considered one of the world’s most repressive political regimes.
- One of the wealthiest nations in Africa.
- Historically it was one of Spain’s only colonies in Africa.
‘Little Nation; Oil Giant’
If you have heard of Equatorial Guinea it is likely that is because you understand the oil industry and the important role the nation has in Africa’s energy industry. It is the third largest producer of oil in Sub-Saharan Africa after the much larger states of Nigeria and Angola and although it is only number 33 in the world, production has increased rapidly year on year since oil was discovered in 1996. Oil is now the big driver within the economy and has caused rapid growth within the nation and has generated much profit for the government.
Political Repression and Dictatorship
For many in International Relations/World News/Global Development etc you may know Equatorial Guinea for far more sinister reasons. The regime of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo is often criticised as many being a corrupt regime, led by a dictators whose rule is widely considered one of the most repressive in the world.
He has ruled for 34 years in the nation following a coup in which he ousted his own uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema, who was himself considered a dictator. He is currently the second longest ruling African leader after, Paul Biya of Cameroon, and his rule as leader has been characterised by political repression.
The regime of President Obiang was meant to be a departure from the repressive regime of his uncle, who was convicted of the genocide of the Bubi people. However under Obiang’s rule there have been reports of torture, political suppression, killings by the state security services, government-sanctioned kidnappings, brutal prison conditions, suppression of the press and widespread government corruption.
According to Forbes magazine he is one of the world’s wealthiest heads of state, with a personal wealth of over $600 million and much of this is said to have come from the national treasury in a move, Obiang claimed, was to prevent corruption within the civil service and government ministers. Much of this wealth was held in US banks, including Riggs, which was investigated for their role in financing his regime. As previously stated Equatorial Guinea is both one of Africa’s leading oil producers and one of the continents wealthiest nations. However because of the widespread corruption of the leader and the government, the country has one of the worst UN Human Index ratings and the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow.
Obiang has generated a cult of personality in the country largely through propaganda spread by state radio that proclaims him as a god-like figure. This has gone a long way in Equatorial Guinea to halting the influence of external images of the President; which portray him as one of Africa’s worst dictators.
The Spanish Legacy: A Unique History
In a region dominated by France and French culture, Equatorial Guinea was and still remains an unique cultural outpost that represents the Spanish history and cultural influence that created the African state. The Spanish took over control in the region during the 18th century and used the colony as a source of slaves and as a sugar-producing nation. However due to the isolation of the Spanish colony in Africa and the difficulty it had competing with the colonies of the Caribbean and Latin America it became less important in Spain’s empire.
Its history is largely one of exploitation and isolation but it has developed a very distinct Spanish characteristic to the nation. Spanish is the main language and Roman Catholicism is almost universal in the state. Culturally it has great links to the states of Latin America, who underwent similar Spanish colonisation, but in Equatorial Guinea the role of native tribal culture is far greater and it is still a feature of modern life.
Why Do We Know So Little?
Size is a big factor is answering this. As I’ve previously stated African politics is often a discourse of ‘Big Nations’. Countries like Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia and Kenya grab the headlines and when problems are present in these large nations, it is unlikely that anyone will focus on the smaller nations, like Equatorial Guinea, if problems in these big nations have not been addressed first. This was what happened in Rwanda during the Civil War when it was already to late to intervene.
Likewise Obiang has been largely ignored as a ‘dictator’ because the world has been too focused on other leaders, all of whom were considered more dangerous than Obiang. Colonel Gadaffi, Robert Mugabe, apartheid regimes in South Africa all trumped Obiang in the past 30 years when Western nations looked at Africa.
There are also claims that unless conflict is taking place the role of these dictators and the true extent of their repression is unknown and not under scrutiny. For the moment Equatorial Guinea remains stable and so international focus is drawn away from this state to others suffering conflict.
Within the West there is also arguablly a bias in favour of the regime in Equatorial Guinea. The US has often been accused of being too close to Obiang in order to benefit politically and economically. A US think-tank, the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, hosted a talk in 2002 in which it claimed “West African oil is what can help stabilize the Middle East, end Muslim terror, and secure a measure of energy security“. This statement is endemic of the thought within the US; that supporting Obiang is fine as there are far greater threats, including the Middle East.
However, there are indications that this is not a completely forgotten nation. In 2004 the country became the focus of British media attention when a coup, by European and South African mercenaries, attempted to overthrow the President’s regime. It was led by a former British soldier and it was soon discovered that one of the financial backers was Mark Thatcher, the son of former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Although only a brief period in the nation’s history it showed that there is a global mandate for dealing with the Obiang regime and the problems facing the nation of Equatorial Guinea.