The Tragedy of Equatorial Guinea – political slave to the resource curse

Note- this is an article I wrote ten years ago, back in June 2004. Since then the situation has deteriorated in this country with the Nguema family still firmly in control, politically and economically. It is not only the timber that is being stripped but the vast resources of oil being sold to western, mainly US, companies, without the slightest complaint about the political status quo; in fact the leadership attended the recent Africa US summit in Washington. It was originally published as a leader in the Cape Times.

Reposted 7 August 2014.


Follow the Money; Equatorial Guinea

by Glenn Ashton

27 June 2004

A decade ago, few people had even heard of Equatorial Guinea, let alone knew where it was. Guinea, Guinea-Bissau yes, perhaps; but Equatorial Guinea? That was, until the late 1990s, when large oil deposits were discovered off its coast and it was catapulted from its position as a sleepy, poorly run African backwater into the third biggest oil producer in Africa.


South Africans gained closer familiarity with Equatorial Guinea when a group of South African mercenaries were arrested in Harare, allegedly en route from South Africa to Equatorial Guinea to stage a coup on behalf of forces unknown, but said to come from opponents to the Nguema family. Obiang Nguema has run this impoverished country with an iron fist since the 1970s. He came to power by deposing his despised Uncle Francisco Macias.


Political accountability and democratic governance remains a distant dream for this blighted nation which could politely be referred to as a plutocracy but what could more plainly be called a kleptocracy. This kleptocracy is noteworthy given the beneficiaries of the oil boom and timber extraction, certainly not the populace of that nation. There have been elections, but there have also been hangings of opposition members, as well as allegations of torture and the extra-judicial killing of opponents. Over one third of the population of Equatorial Guinea lives in exile, with deep-seated opposition to the Nguema dynasty widespread both within and outside the country.


Recently the South African connection deepened when the son of Obiang Nguema, Teodoro (aka Teodorin) Nguema Obiang, bought two very pricey properties in Cape Town, one each in Clifton and Bishopscourt, at a combined price of over R50 million. Teodorin Nguema, besides being the son of the president, is also the minister of Forestry for Equatorial Guinea.


Most would consider this an unimportant post until one considers the importance of forestry to Equatorial Guinea. This tiny nation, nestled between Cameroon and Gabon on the Gulf of Guinea, is mostly swathed by lush tropical forest. Make that ‘was’.


Equatorial Guinea is comprised of a total area of around 28, 000 square kilometres, smaller than Lesotho but larger than Swaziland. Of this area, 22, 000 square kilometres of Equatorial Guinea was forested up to a decade ago. Of this, a total 15, 000 square kilometres has been allocated to industrial logging.


Wood is an increasingly valuable global commodity. Sustainable timber extraction is estimated at approximately 400, 000 cubic meters of timber annually. This level was reached in 1996, and in 1997 an estimated 757,173 cubic metres of timber was exported. Presently an estimated 1 million cubic meters of timber are being removed from these forests annually. The entire ecological balance of the region is being irretrievably damaged by this exploitation and EU and US based watchdog organisations have raised concerns at the highest levels about the present state of affairs. And Teodorin is the man in direct charge of this overexploitation of his nations’ resources.


Eighty to ninety percent of the total population of about half a million Equatorial Guineans rely on the forest for food, medicine, shelter, fuel and for other necessities of life. While there are laws that are supposed to protect the forests and limit overexploitation, these are reportedly widely ignored. Timber companies have failed to support even token projects that favour the forest dwellers. Encroachment on traditional lands is further increasing the pressures on rotations amongst small-scale farms in the remaining patches of forest, causing further overexploitation and unsustainable use.


Organisations like the World Rainforest Movement report that the forest resources are being depleted for the benefit of Trans-national corporations while local residents are deprived of their means to livelihood.


As in other places where logging has been allowed, it is not only the forest that suffers, it is the entire ecosystem. The bushmeat trade increases as access into pristine areas is enabled by logging roads moving ever further into the rainforests. Possibilities for exposure to haemorrhagic fevers, unknown viruses and other diseases are proven to increase when logging opens up wilderness areas. Guidelines on keeping slopes free from logging are evidently being ignored and experts warn that this overexploitation is an environmental disaster in the making, with ecological collapse as its inevitable result.


Teordorin is reputed to have close ties to Shimmer International, a subsidiary of the Malaysian Trans-national logging company Rimbunan Hijau. The World Rainforest Movement quotes Richard Wilcox’s study “Asian Economies Fuel Forest Meltdown”, saying that “Rimbunan Hijau has become one of the most ruthless logging companies in the world”, due to abuses of national laws and regulations, human rights violations and contractual breaches. Several other equally disreputable corporations are also involved in this pillage of the resource.


If only a fraction of this story were true, it would be incumbent upon the South African government to investigate this matter. What sort of people do we allow to purchase property here? Surely it is unacceptable to allow such questionably sourced funds to move freely into a legitimate marketplace? Is Financial Intelligence Act (FICA) not designed for precisely such extra-legal practices? Does SA, as a driver of NEPAD, not have an obligation to act in this case and more importantly, to be seen to act to promote democratic governance in Equatorial Guinea? A reasonable person would surely argue that there is little difference between controlling the illicit funds of drug barons and those in places of power who exploit and abuse agreed international standards for environmental governance for self-enrichment and who have acted against their national interest.


The amount of over R50 million appears to have a high likelihood of being tainted by environmental and human rights abuses. An important part of the tropical rainforest in Central Africa is rapidly being depleted to fund the undemocratic leadership of what is claimed to be one of the most corrupt regimes in Africa.


Just as FICA should be applied in this case, so too the principles of good governance as espoused by NEPAD should also be brought to bear in the form of African diplomatic pressure and sanction. Equatorial Guinea has recently gained the resources that should allow its people to be lifted from poverty en masse. To allow the wealth of a nation with a sixth of the population of Cape Town to be squandered on vulgar, opulent mansions, amongst the most expensive in Africa, appears bereft of any moral or ethical principle. Such a situation should not be countenanced by nations like South Africa that purport to promote good governance.


What is presently happening in Equatorial Guinea will inevitably have disastrous long-term effects on that nation. Just as its oil has been found to be monopolised by its tiny elite, so too is its timber. Are South Africans prepared to allow the reputation of their nation to be degraded by offering haven to such people? By all appearances Teodorin stands as an antithesis to the very tenets of freedom and democracy, so hard fought for and held so dear by South Africans. Can South Africans be seen to sell their soul for silver tainted by mud and blood? What sort of message does this send to the world?


The article is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence:

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