From The Economist print edition
Three decades at the helm isn’t long, says a pitiful place’s ruthless president
NEXT month Obiang Nguema will celebrate the 30th anniversary of his coup against his genocidal uncle, Macias Nguema. Since then he has shown a deft ability to stay put in the face of numerous coup attempts, bitter rivalry in his ruling clan of the Fang group, and efforts by foreign mercenaries to get rid of him. One of Africa’s last “big men”, he is the longest-serving leader south of the Sahara, since Gabon’s Omar Bongo died last month. But he has barely benefited his 600,000-plus subjects.
The former Spanish colony struck oil in the 1990s and is sub-Saharan Africa’s fourth-largest exporter after Angola, Nigeria and Sudan. Its people should be rich and happy, yet they are repressed and mostly poor. “It is the quintessential example of the oil curse,” says Alex Vines of London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, who has written a damning report on the country for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based lobby. Last year Transparency International, which monitors graft from Berlin, ranked Equatorial Guinea as the world’s ninth-most-corrupt country. Less than 2% of its GDP goes on public health and less than 1% on education. But President Nguema spends vast sums on defence, for example by hiring an American private security firm, Military Professional Resources, to train his army.
A sprightly 67-year-old who has regular health check-ups abroad, Mr Nguema says he has no plans to leave office. He is sure to be declared the winner, by a thumping margin, in a presidential poll scheduled for December. Last year his party won 99 of his parliament’s 100 seats. His government runs the press and jails opponents. But things might be worse if Mr Nguema lost control of rival factions in his family. The main one is led by his elder son, Teodorin. If they were let loose, the scramble for oil money could easily turn violent.
Barack Obama shows no sign of dropping Mr Nguema as an ally of America, whose firms pump out much of the oil. China, which has built a big embassy in Malabo, the island capital, is cosying up too. And despite longstanding complaints about Mr Nguema’s brutal ways, Spain has also been currying oily favour. Repsol, a Spanish firm with historic Equatorial links, says it is returning to the country after nearly 30 years. And Spain’s foreign minister has just flown in to give Mr Nguema a friendly wink.