How the World’s Hardest-Working Dictator Won Re-election

Foreign Policy, 05.05.2016
Siobhán O'Grady, periodista norteamericana


In 1979, Francisco Macías Nguema was enjoying his 11th year in power as president for life in Equatorial Guinea — a tiny, former Spanish colony in central Africa. All in all, things had been going well for the merciless dictator, who kept much of the country’s national treasury in suitcases under his bed while he oversaw the slaughter of so many civilians that he was nicknamed after a Nazi concentration camp.

But after Macías began to lose his grip on power and developed a brain tumor, his nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, a senior military officer who had quickly moved up in the ranks, organized a bloody coup. Then he had Macías executed, and declared himself president.

Last week, nearly 37 years after he first took power, Obiang — who himself was responsible for many of the horrors that happened under his uncle’s rule — won another seven-year term in an election where the government said he took 93.7 percent of the national vote. Former U.S. Ambassador to Equatorial Guinea John Bennett said it is unfair to even refer to the voting process there as a true election when it is really nothing more than a “re-enthronement.”

“The first thing to understand about him is that he is a mass murderer, pure and simple,” Bennett, who served in Equatorial Guinea from 1991 to 1994,told Foreign Policy. “If he’s not a democrat, he’s the hardest-working dictator in the world.”

Like his uncle, Obiang, 73, has ruled over the country of only 760,000 people with an iron fist. He doesn’t keep the national treasury under his bed, but he does treat the country’s finances like his personal bank account. In 2014, his son, Teodorín, who serves as Equatorial Guinea’s second vice president, was forced to relinquish more than $30 million to the U.S. Justice Department after he embezzled state money to buy luxury goods in the United States.

That spending spree included a private jet, a mansion in Malibu, and millions of dollars’ worth of Michael Jackson paraphernalia — much of which was returned in the 2014 settlement.

One item the Justice Department didn’t manage to seize? Jackson’s signature white glove. The younger Obiang also owns it but hadn’t stored it in the United States.

“Through relentless embezzlement and extortion, Vice President Nguema Obiang shamelessly looted his government and shook down businesses in his country to support his lavish lifestyle, while many of his fellow citizens lived in extreme poverty,” Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell said at the time. “After raking in millions in bribes and kickbacks, Nguema Obiang embarked on a corruption-fueled spending spree in the United States.”

Luxury purchases like the ones by Obiang’s son were made possible in large part by the country’s lucky stumble into oil in the mid-1990s, when Mobil oil company announced it had hit a major discovery there. Equatorial Guinea quickly transformed from a little-known African nation into one of the continent’s top oil exporters. Obiang, who continued to carry out human rights abuses, quickly earned international protection from oil-interested allies. Meanwhile, civilians in Equatorial Guinea saw no economic gain from the massive oil boom.

While the Obiang family looted the country’s oil profits for personal gain, average Equatorial Guineans continued to suffer. Even now, the average Equatorial Guinean doesn’t live to be more than 54 years old.

“The country received billions of dollars in petroleum money, and it’s all been stolen,” Bennett told FP. “It’s just not there.” The Equatorial Guinean Embassy in Washington did not return a request for comment.

And the Obiang family may not be able to rely on oil forever. In 2015, the International Monetary Fund said the country’s oil-dependent economy will not always see the same benefit from oil. The economy grew rapidly in the early 2000s due to hydrocarbon production, but it will likely contract over the next five years, the IMF said.

And without oil, Obiang’s administration won’t have much to stand on. The U.S. State Department’s 2015 annual human rights report on Equatorial Guinea said the Equatorial Guinean government is responsible for widespread corruption, intimidation of free press, torture, and arbitrary arrest, among other violations. The country’s prison conditions are so decrepit that the State Department described them as “life threatening.”

During his diplomatic deployment to Malabo, Bennett said he received death threats from Obiang’s henchmen; meanwhile, Obiang himself displayed a total lack of self-control during private meetings with the American ambassador. “He would get upset about something, and then he would begin banging the table and yelling at me,” Bennett recalled. “He had two secretaries outside his doors, and they would always cringe. I would see them almost hiding under the desk.”

Severo Moto, the Equatorial Guinean opposition leader who established a government in exile in Spain, told FP in a phone call that many opposition groups running against Obiang in recent elections have been created by the dictator to concoct the appearance of free and fair elections. Any valid opposition, including Moto’s own Progress Party, has faced harassment and intimidation.

“It is very, very, very sad,” he said. “I still receive many calls from people back home who say, ‘You need to do something. We are already tired; we cannot continue with this situation.’”

Moto, a priest who also worked as a journalist and politician before a falling-out with Obiang in the 1980s, has mainly lived in Spain, where he sought shelter despite some earlier trips back home to Equatorial Guinea to run in elections there.

His own career has not been free from controversy: In 2004, British mercenary Simon Mann was caught by Zimbabwean officials and accused of trying to overthrow Obiang to replace him with Moto. A South African court also found that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s son, Sir Mark, was responsible for financing the attempted coup. Many believe Moto was directly tied to the plot, but in his conversation with FP, he claimed instead that he was the victim of attempted assassinations by men working for Obiang, including one particularly dramatic episode where he said he was nearly murdered on a boat off the coast of Croatia.

“I am incapable of a violent solution,” Moto said. “It’s for this reason that the population there still looks to me and is still waiting for me to arrive back home. A coup d’état? I’m incapable of that.”

But after decades of living in Spain, and no progress back home toward Obiang’s removal from power, Moto fears that without more assistance from the international community, the situation unfolding in Equatorial Guinea will only become more dire. “I think if President Obama knew what we wanted for Africa, he would be very happy,” Moto told FP. “I think that we would tell him, and he would tell other Americans, and the Americans would say, ‘OK, what can we do for you?’”

But for now, Obiang’s hold on power is strong enough that what Moto wants for his country likely won’t come true anytime soon.

“Obiang has a hell of a lot of blood on his hands,” Bennett said. “But he will stay there as long as he wishes to stay, I think.”

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