An Equatorial Guinean friend sends me a message on Facebook. Abrazo. A hug. He’s upset, because to walk to work he’s had to pass through Malabo’s Plaza de la Mujer, which is currently occupied by a large contingent of riot police and K-9 units, not unlike the Ukrainian mercenaries that searched my luggage on the tarmac of the Bata airport in 2011, on a short domestic flight from Equatorial Guinea’s island capital Malabo. This Sunday, May 26, 2013, was the latest Parliamentary Election under President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, now the longest serving African head of state, following the 2011 overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Obiang, who overthrew his despotic uncle Francisco Macías in late 1979, has since held five presidential elections, though he ran as the only candidate in the first three and de facto sole candidate in the last two, when most opposition parties called for boycotts. Rightfully so — in 2002 one Guinean precinct registered 103 percent of the vote in Obiang’s favor. Tutu Alicante, Executive Director of the nonprofit EG Justice, which presses for human rights and the rule of law in Equatorial Guinea, said, “The sad truth is that Equatoguineans have never experienced a free and fair election.”
When I was in Malabo, the Guineans I asked squirmed when asked about voting. Most didn’t bother. What’s the point? asked my twenty-something friend Francisco. Obiang is going to win, and voting against him is like volunteering for government harrasment, or worse.
Last week a group of nine peaceful protestors were detained, arrested, and allegedly tortured. UN reports have long confirmed systematic torture in the Guinean prison system. In 2008 UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak reported “beatings to the soles of feet and buttocks with batons, solid rubberized cables and wooden bars; electric shocks with starter cables attached to different parts of the body with alligator clips; various forms of suspension with hands and feet tied together for prolonged periods and beating victims while they swing back-and-forth,” all corroborated by expert medical analysis. It’s likely that President Obiang was once involved firsthand in the torture of political prisoners, as head of the country’s notorious Black Beach Prison under his uncle’s infamously brutal regime, though these days he’s more likely to be spotted smiling for photos with President Obama.
Since the mid-1990s Equatorial Guinea has emerged as one of the continent’s largest oil producers, skyrocketing to its current position as the most wealthy per capita country in Africa, with a 2012 GNI of just over $25,000. Despite those statistics, World Bank estimates that some 78% of Guineans live beneath the national poverty line, and most on less that $1 a day. Despite the 2004 downfall of Obiang’s preferred US finance institution, Riggs Bank, which the US Senate confirmed accepted payment of $300M from ExxonMobil and Amerada Hess into accounts directly controlled by the president and his family, Forbes has recently estimated that he retains some $700M of the money earned from his country’s oil wealth in American banks.