On Sunday, Teodoro Obiang will be confirmed as president of Equatorial Guinea in an election farce – for the sixth time. For the oil-rich, mouse-poor country, this means one thing above all: the disaster continues.
One election is Equatorial Guinea’s paper-only vote. Although three candidates ran for the presidency of the West African country, it is at best a democratic facade. There is no doubt that Teodoro Obiang will be confirmed in office on Sunday – as always, one might say.
The 80-year-old has headed the only former Spanish colony in sub-Saharan Africa since 1979. Then, eleven years after independence, Obiang stripped his uncle of power and later had him killed. With a tenure of 43 years, he is now the longest serving Prime Minister in the world.
In the last election in 2016, which international observers unanimously called a farce, Obiang officially won 93.7 percent of the vote. A similar result is likely to be announced this time as well.
The epitome of resource curse
In a fair and free election, Obiang, who rarely appears in public anymore, probably wouldn’t stand a chance. His record is a disaster.
For four decades, Obiang has run his country so far that he is now seen as the epitome of the resource curse. Relative to its size, Equatorial Guinea has significant oil reserves. Because of the billions the government makes from promoting and exporting them, the country has one of the highest per capita incomes in Africa at around $12,000 a year.
However, for most of the 1.5 million inhabitants, this number is irrelevant. The country’s level of development is abysmal, even by African standards—and has gotten worse recently: Today, about 70 percent of the population lives in poverty, life expectancy is 60, and the school and health systems are underfunded. According to the UN, there is no other country where the gap between per capita income and the level of human development is as great as in Equatorial Guinea.
Where billions of oil actually go has long been an open secret. This becomes apparent when you follow Obiang’s son Teodorin on social media, who is also the country’s vice president and is considered a possible successor to his father. There, the fifty-four-year-old man, who has been convicted of corruption in several Western countries, does not hide his penchant for luxury: sometimes he shows up in expensive sports cars, other times on his yacht. President Obiang is more modest in public, but for years he has been considered one of the richest heads of government in the world.
nepotism and repression
The fact that Obiang remains in power despite all this is mainly due to the fact that he has steadily expanded his control over the country over the years. This is true at the political level: with one exception, only representatives of the ruling party sit in the two chambers of parliament, and many important posts in government and state-linked companies are held by family members or close confidants. But it also applies to the security apparatus, whose loyalty costs Obiang dearly – and which he regularly uses to intimidate, imprison, torture or kill too vocal critics.
In the weeks before the elections, repression increased significantly again. Dozens of NGO representatives, opposition politicians and journalists have been arrested and remain in custody. A human rights organization based in neighboring Cameroon warned of a “wave of repression aimed at silencing the population”.
Little international pressure
Despite these egregious abuses, international criticism of the Obiang regime has been limited. The US in particular plays an ambiguous role in the country.
The US State Department recently expressed concern over “reports of arrests and harassment of members of the opposition and civil society”. But those words of warning seem hypocritical given that Washington has even strengthened its ties with the corrupt government in recent years, regularly sending high-ranking government officials to Malabo on air visits.
The explanation for this contradictory American policy is quickly found: China has been trying for several years to get the green light in Malabo to build a military base on the main island of Equatorial Guinea. It would be Beijing’s second base in Africa after Djibouti – and its first in the Atlantic.
Washington wants to prevent this at all costs and seems willing to look the other way when it comes to human rights and democracy. Just last week, in the midst of a repressive election campaign, CIA Deputy Chief Obiang Jr. met with a corrupt vice president. According to the communique, the talks in Malabo mainly concerned “security in the seas of the Gulf of Guinea”.