There are small steps towards softening, but little hope of real system change in the oil-fueled, small dictatorship where the president’s family is piling up in luxury while most people see little change.

When Equatorial Guinea is rarely mentioned in international media, it is often associated with a ranking of various states’ economic growth, where the country is most often at the world top, or when a watchdog organization publishes reports of corruption or human rights. When it comes to social and human development, there is little new. Daily life is strikingly unchanged and on the HDI index the country has remained remarkably stable, considering that the gross domestic product has multiplied since the turn of the millennium and is now at European level, with huge increase in public revenue and consumption as well.

Thus, Equatorial Guinea is an ideal candidate to exemplify some aspects of the curse of the oil economy. At the same time, it can be argued that the country’s governance was so extremely poor even before the oil, that the oil can not be used to explain much beyond the fact that oil revenues probably hindered change. However, the oil has not had any significant impact on anyone other than the country’s elite. The president costs four times more than the country’s total water and sewer costs. The budget is also dominated by large infrastructure investments, mainly roads, hotels and other services that serve the oil industry and the elite.

The oil boom flattening out inĀ 2009 has shown some economic downturn, which is explained by crazy growth in the previous year and reduced oil prices in 2009. And that does not change the trend: Growth is expected, but far more moderate in the years to come. The oil boom is over, but the oil economy will dominate for about another decade. There are few signs of long-term thinking about what happens when the oil runs out. It does not help that forestry is among the most important other industries. The forest will also end, along with important biological diversity. Fisheries and agriculture are other important sectors; both are under-prioritized.

Twenty years in power

The country’s president, Theodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, was re-elected in November 2009 after serving twenty years and three months in power. The event was met with an international yawn; The 95 percent election result surprised few, and although few believe that the election was free and fair, the electoral process itself is not the most important. Opposition parties have very little leeway; most important opposition politicians are in prison or in exile, and the main opposition is in ex-colonial power Spain. There are some “free” media, but self-censorship is effective and it is prohibited by law to criticize public figures. Several journalists are in prison.

An officer and a gentleman

2009 probably marked the end of a case that has placed Equatorial Guinea on the map for years, especially in the United Kingdom. Former British soldier Simon Mann was central to a coup attempt in 2004, but the case received the greatest international attention because Sir Mark Thatcher, son of Britain’s former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, was also likely to be involved. A man was arrested in Zimbabwe and later transferred to Equatorial Guinea. He was surprisingly released in November 2009 along with four South African co-conspirators. The release was officially humanitarian, but matched well with an imminent presidential visit from South Africa. Some also claim that Mann was seen as a risk factor: An armed but unsuccessful attack on the presidential palace in February 2009 was claimed to be an attempt to free Mann.

That the pardon happened just a few weeks before the election may not be coincidental, but also not obvious: The president has not previously shown any significant concern for international criticism, and domestic analysts believe that pardon may have been tactically unfortunate because it shows weakness. In any case, it contrasts sharply with a tradition in Equatorial Guinea for the treatment of coup makers, of which there have been many: A historical highlight / bottom point so far is the public execution of 150 coup makers in a stadium while an orchestra played the tune “Those were there days, “in 1975. The incumbent president has been somewhat more moderate, but nevertheless there have been regular reports of imprisonment, murder and kidnapping of people suspected of threatening the regime, and harsh penalties for those who have attempted coups.

Criticism of luxury and money laundering

In the US and France, there has been some negative attention about the corruption, money laundering and luxury life of President Obiang’s son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue. He often travels to the United States where he owns luxury apartments and a myriad of cars, planes and boats, and according to US government officials he normally has more than a million dollars in cash on his travels. Several reports show obvious participation by US companies in corruption and money laundering. In France, both the prosecutor’s office and Transparency International have tried legal action against the president’s son’s money laundering and corruption, but these were halted in 2009 despite solid police evidence, and it smells of political override.

Whether the president and his people are plagued by foreign criticism is uncertain. The steering set is clearly closed and the leaders give few messages to the public. The criticism, however, does not appear to have serious consequences: The country has a reasonably good, or at least profitable, relationship with foreign countries: the United States, Spain, China and France are the main trading partners and donors. In addition to several border conflicts in the maritime areas, which have so far been largely handled diplomatically and peacefully, the country has a reasonably good relationship with its neighbors. However, the relationship with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank is relatively cool due to corruption and mismanagement, but it has improved in recent years. Especially the cooperation with the World Bank is mentioned by some as a sign of softening, as this cooperation is concentrated on social measures.

There are also some other, gentle, indications of softening. The November 2009 election was said to have a better tone than before. In connection with the country’s process towards membership in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (or EITI defined on AbbreviationFinder), there has been a formal improvement in some civil society formalities and transparency, but it has not yet yielded substantial results. Equatorial Guinea hosting the Africa Football Championship in 2012 could possibly serve as an incentive for improvement.

There have long been rumors and relatively little detailed analysis of internal opposition within the president’s own family, which has traditionally been the precursor to the change of government through the coup. This is still a hypothetical possibility, but there are no clear indications that it could happen. So far, President Obiang has all power, and if softening occurs, it is likely to be limited to the changes desired by the president.

Country facts:

Area: 28 051 km2 (44th largest)

Population: 659 000

Population density per km2: 23

Urban population: 39 percent

Largest city: Malabo – approx. 96 000

GDP per capita: USD 27,130

Economic growth: 15.2 percent

HDI Position: 118

Equatorial Guinea