Among the worst of these African tyrannies has been the regime of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea. Obiang has been in power even longer than the 28-year reign of Mugabe and, according to a recent article in the British newspaper The Independent, makes the Zimbabwean dictator “seem stable and benign” by comparison. Obiang originally seized power in a 1979 coup by murdering his uncle, who had ruled the country since its independence from Spain in 1968. Under his rule, Equatorial Guinea nominally allowed the existence of opposition parties as a condition of receiving foreign aid in the early 1990s. But the four leading candidates withdrew from the last presidential election in December 2002 in protest of irregularities in the voting process and violence against their supporters. In that election, Obiang officially received more than 97% of the vote (down from 99.5% in the previous election.)
Though the U.S. State Department acknowledged that the election was “marred by extensive fraud and intimidation,” the Congress and the administration devoted none of the vehement condemnation that was so evident after the recent, similarly marred election process in Zimbabwe.
One major reason for the difference in response is oil. The development of vast oil reserves over the past decade has made Equatorial Guinea one of the wealthiest countries in Africa in terms of per capita gross domestic product. Virtually all of the oil revenues, however, goes to Obiang and his cronies. The dictator himself is worth an estimated $1 billion, making him the wealthiest leader in Africa; his real estate holdings include two mansions in Maryland just outside of Washington, DC. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the country’s population lives on only a few dollars a day, and nearly half of all children under five are malnourished. The country’s major towns and cities lack basic sanitation and potable water while conditions in the countryside are even worse.
During his most recent visit to Washington in 2006, Obiang was warmly received by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who praised the dictator as “a good friend” of the United States. Not once during their joint appearance did she mention the words “human rights” or “democracy.” At the same press conference, Obiang praised his regime’s “extremely good relations with the United States” and his expectation that “this relationship will continue to grow in friendship and cooperation.” None of the assembled reporters raised any questions about the regime’s notorious human rights record or its lack of democracy, instead using the opportunity to ask Secretary Rice questions about the alleged threat from Iran.
In 2002, the dictator met with President George W. Bush in New York to discuss military and energy security issues. He followed up in 2004 with meetings with then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and then-Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham.
Equatorial Guinea receives U.S. government funding and training through the International Military Education and Training Program (IMET). In addition, the private U.S. firm Military Professional Resources Incorporated – founded by former senior Pentagon officials who cite the regime’s friendliness to U.S. strategic and economic interests – plays a key role in the country’s internal security apparatus. Furthermore, as a result of Obiang’s understandable lack of trust in his own people, soldiers from Morocco – one of America’s closest African allies – have served for decades in a number of important security functions, including the role of presidential guards.
Maintaining close ties with such a notorious ruler has led even conservative Republicans like Frank Ruddy, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Equatorial Guinea in the mid-1980s, to denounce the Bush administration for being “big cheerleaders for the government – and it’s an awful government.”
Though the Chinese have also recently begun investing in the country’s oil sector, U.S. companies ExxonMobil, Amerada Hess, Chevron/Texaco, and Marathon Oil have played the most significant role. A report by the International Monetary Fund notes that U.S. oil companies receive “by far the most generous tax and profit-sharing provisions in the region.” Congressional hearings recently revealed how U.S. oil companies paid hundreds of millions of dollars destined to state treasuries directly into the dictator’s private bank accounts. A Senate report faulted U.S. oil companies for making “substantial payments to, or entering into business ventures with,” government officials and their family members.