Equatorial Guinea, a small country in Africa with only 1.4 million inhabitants, has always attracted my attention. It is the only Spanish speaking country on the continent. Sandwiched between Cameroon and Gabon, it stands like a matchbox facing the ocean. The capital, Malabo, is not on the main continent, but on the island of Bioko in the Gulf of Guinea (Atlantic Ocean), off the coast of Cameroon. In 1996, the discovery of oil in the country’s offshore areas changed the fate of this poor former Spanish colony. It was imagined that the oil revenues would lift one and a half million citizens out of poverty and into middle-income status. Yet, a quarter of a century later, we look at the state of the country and realize that the oil profits have not trickled down to the people, but have instead lined the pockets of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and his family members, who came to power in a coup d’état in 1979.
The world’s most senior head of state
In my writings on Africa, I have always lamented that some leaders in the continent, especially those who came by coup d’état, cling to their seats and usually do not leave office until their death. Obiang Nguema is at the top of this list. Last year, this most senior of the dinosaurs participated in the November 2022 elections, which were brought forward by 6 months, and was once again authorized him govern the country for 7 years. In simpler terms, the 80-year-old leader, who has been in power for 43 years, won 95 percent of the votes in the elections he participated in for the 6th time.
Winning elections is easy when the opposition is for show
When you think of winning elections, don’t think of free and fair elections. There has been intense pressure on the opposition for years. In the November 2022 elections, the two opposition candidates who were tolerated to run against the Leader won only five percent of the vote. The ruling party won all 100 seats in parliament. Let us emphasize for this occassion: In this small country, the struggle for power is not between the government and the opposition. It is between the players within the ruling party (the Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea). In other words, the competition is between members of the leader’s family.
Is son Teodorin ready for the seat?
In terms of the post-Leader era, the main contender for power is the son Teodorin, who has been dreaming of the coveted seat for 10 years. In 2012, the 54-year-old Teodorin became vice-president for national defense, and in 2016 he was promoted to first vice-president. While rumors in palace circles over the past year had suggested that father Obiang Nguema would decline to run in the April 2023 elections due to his advanced age, and that son Teodorin, who had gained enough experience during his 10 years as vice president, would step forward and take over, developments have not been in line with expectations.
According to Jeune Afrique, at the Party congress held at the end of 2021, part of the family opposed the transfer of the seat to son Teodorin, who at the time had a very negative image in the eyes of the international community. It was agreed that the elections would be brought forward by six months to November 2022, that the Leader would run again and retain the seat, and that he would resign in a year or two and hand it over to his son Teodorin, the vice-president.
A presidential candidate? Spoiled child of the jet set?
Son Teodorin’s dossier is quite extensive and colorful. Over the past decade, lawsuits and judgments have been filed against him in courts in the US, UK, France and Switzerland. In all of these cases, the money spent on luxury real estate, luxury automobiles or collectibles of well-known singers was found to be shady, or public money was used (in France, in the case of “Les biens mal acquis – ill-gotten property”, the Paris court ruled in 2021 that the defendant Teodorin should be fined 30 million euros, imprisoned for 3 years and his property confiscated). The course and results of these cases were covered by the press in many countries, and the image of Teodorin on the one hand, and of his father, the head of state, and of his country Equatorial Guinea on the other, was severely damaged (172nd out of 180 countries on the corruption list). Some sanctions against the “spoiled child of the jet-set” by Western countries are still in force (he is banned from entering the UK). With such a dossier, the son Teodorin is the number one candidate for the office of President of Equatorial Guinea in 2023 or 2024, taking over from his father.
Missing plane of the national airline
How did I write this article? For the past year, I have been following Obiang Nguema, Africa’s longest serving head of state, with great interest to see whether he would run again and whether he would be succeeded by his son Teodorin, other sons or his brother. But I could not write about the November 2022 elections because they coincided with my laziness. However, when I read a very interesting development about the family last week, I thought it was time to reflect on the country, the family and all the intrigue.
The story goes like this: Teodorin’s half-brother Ruslan heads CEIBA, the national air company of Equatorial Guinea. Last November, the authorities discovered that an ATR 72-500 aircraft belonging to CEIBA had vaporized. In 2018, the plane was sent to Spain for technical maintenance, but was subsequently removed from the company’s inventory and inventory records. The issue of the missing plane was reported in the press in December. Eventually, it was revealed that the head of the company, son Ruslan, had sold the missing plane to the Spanish aircraft maintenance and repair company Binter Technic. In the wake of this scandal, Vice President Teodorin announced on Twitter last week that his half-brother Ruslan had confessed to selling the plane, that he would not be given any privileges because he was family, and that he had ordered his arrest. In other words, no more nepotism!
Being an oil-rich country : A curse or a fortune?
It is sad and disheartening to see the family that has ruled the small oil-rich African country for 43 years without letting the opposition breathe and is determined to continue to do so. It is worth remembering that we have seen similar cases of abuse in the family of the late José Eduardo dos Santos, the historic leader of Angola further south, whose daughter Isabel Santos became the richest woman in Africa by misusing public resources. It is possible to multiply the examples even more. I must confess: When I think of oil in Africa, I don’t know whether I should think of prosperity, abundance and wealth or corruption and curses.