Monday, December 7, 2009
Rich in Oil, Poor in Human Rights
It has the makings of a modern-day fairy tale, the story of a country transformed from a pariah state into an oil paradise. But the reality is that Equatorial Guinea, almost unnoticed by the rest of the world, is experiencing a modern-day tragedy, a story of the dark niches of global politics in times of oil and terror.
After a long trip abroad, the president has just landed in Malabo, the island capital of Equatorial Guinea. It's Sunday morning, the sky is one big, dripping cloud, and two days ago the price of a barrel of crude oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange hit $74. A good day for Equatorial Guinea.
President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo is a gaunt man. He is an excellent tennis player, and those who know him -- and plan to remain in the country -- describe him as modest and likeable. Human rights organizations, on the other hand, place him on par with the likes of Uganda's Idi Amin and Cambodia's Pol Pot.
There are a few ways to be removed from the United State's list of pariah states. Regime change, negotiations and scrapping weapons and torture chambers are options, but the easiest way to be considered honorable by the United States is to discover oil. Lots of oil. After all, everyone wants to drive.
Obiang gets into his bulletproof limousine. A former lieutenant colonel, he is now 64 and the condition of his prostate compels him to make frequent visits to the Mayo Clinic across the Atlantic. The hospitals in his country aren't nearly as good. In fact, they aren't really recognizable as hospitals.
Equatorial Guinea now has the highest per capita income, adjusted for purchasing power, in Africa. No other economy in the world has experienced 30 percent average annual growth in the last five years. The country has fewer inhabitants than the German city of Düsseldorf, but each year it collects several hundred million dollars in revenues from oil companies. "Unfortunately," writes the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its country report, "this wealth has not even led to a measurable improvement in living conditions."
So where is the money going?
President Teodoro Obiang gazes out through the darkened windows of his limousine. The four-lane "Carretera del Aeropuerto" is closed to regular traffic, which normally happens only when the president's son, Teodorín, wants to take his Ferrari for a spin. New warehouses and residential areas for the country's new foreign residents line the highway.
One only has to see the billboards lining the road -- for international energy conglomerates like Schlumberger, Exxon, Bouygues and Marathon -- to realize that an oil boom is taking place in this small West African country. According to one billboard, Chevron is "pleased to be working in the Republic of Equatorial Guinea again." They're all here to do business with Obiang, and at $74 a barrel, he no longer has to answer certain questions.
Most people have never heard of Equatorial Guinea. Into the 1990s, this malaria-infested postage stamp of a country in the neck of Africa was best know for gorillas, giant frogs and the ten-foot-long, deadly Green Mamba snake. In the past, slave cargos were stored here en route to America's plantations.
The country gained a drop of notoriety in the Nicole Kidman film, "The Interpreter," and in Frederick Forsyth's mercenary thriller, "The Dogs of War." In both the film and the bestseller, the country is portrayed as a miserable republic of torture, one with which nobody would want to have any relations if it weren't for its raw materials, an obscure pariah state that really couldn't exist, except in the heads of imaginative writers. Forsyth, considered an excellent observer, wrote his book in the Hotel Bahía on Malabo's harbor.
Malabo is the world's only capital that has no daily newspaper, no newspaper stands and not a single bookstore. The only book available for purchase is displayed in the supermarket. It's called "Practical Handbook of Ceremony" -- a behavioral guide for potentates and those who aspire to be like them.
Former US President Bill Clinton ordered the US embassy in Malabo shut down, because he believed that his ambassador wasn't safe there. That was in the spring of 1995. Only a few weeks later, geologists working for Mobil discovered an oil field, now called the "Zafiro field," only 20 minutes by helicopter from Malabo. It promised to be huge, to the tune of up to 1.2 billion barrels.
Since then, the only powerful adversary President Teodoro Obiang has to fear is his prostate.
The president's motorcade consists of at least two dozen vehicles, each filled with bodyguards, soldiers and automatic weapons, almost as if Obiang were planning to fight a small war. He obtained his bodyguards in Morocco -- at a high price. The president knows that some people can never be completely trusted. In order to take over power, he had his uncle shot and killed.
It happened in 1979, when Obiang's uncle, Francisco Macías Nguema, known as "Papa Macías," embarked on a wave of executions that also extended to close relatives. After the country gained its independence from Spain in 1968, Papa Macías began having his troops slaughter the Bubi, an ethnic minority, drove a third of the country's population into exile, murdered 65,000 citizens -- and called the whole thing "socialism."
The only countries supporting Equatorial Guinea in those years were Cuba, China, the Soviet Union and France. The country was later admitted to the International Organization of Francophone States.
Papa Macías shocked diplomats with his outrageous statements, including his claim that Adolf Hitler was "Africa's savior." The use of the world "intellectuals" was made punishable by law. Macías would celebrate his birthdays by having prisoners shot by a firing squad in Malabo's stadium, while loudspeakers played his favorite song, "Those Were the Days." In this staunchly Catholic country, he once had political opponents crucified.
Before Teodoro Obiang had his despotic uncle shot, he was the director of the notorious "Black Beach Prison," a place known for its torture practices. Now that he is president and is being driven through Malabo, he says he is tired of constantly having to listen to these old stories. After all, the US Secretary of State called him "a good friend" at a reception in Washington on April 12. The higher the price of crude oil in New York, the stronger that friendship seems to get.
The president's motorcade passes the fenced grounds of Exxon's local headquarters building, followed by the powerful Chinese embassy. China is important. It's always a good idea to have several friends, especially when they buy up every drop of oil the country has to offer and do little more than smile and nod when they're told that a state in Africa should be dealt with more sternly than countries elsewhere.
Especially Equatorial Guinea. After all, Obiang was the one who organized the country's first elections and permitted political parties, even for the Bubi. Of course, most party leaders could be bought. Others couldn't understand why one shouldn't criticize a government, and were sent to prison to think about it. "What right does the opposition have to criticize the actions of a government?" the president asked. Severo Moto, an opposition leader who fled the country, was recently sentenced in absentia to 100 years in prison.
Obiang was reelected by almost 100 percent of voters in the last election, a little less than four years ago. Some election precincts even managed to count 103 percent of voters in support of the incumbent candidate, setting what could well be a democratic record.
At the gas station, the motorcade turns left toward the old port. It passes the governing party's headquarters and then a memorial honoring Cuba -- and then something happens.
Someone is standing in the road, a foreign woman holding a camera. She is an American, and she has a photography permit in her bag, a permit for which she paid a $30 fee at the Ministry of Tourism, housed in a crumbling colonial building. The other $70 must have been some sort of tax on white people.
Under government decree number 42, tourists are permitted to take pictures. But there are no tourists in Malabo. No one takes pictures here.
Especially not of the president.
The motorcade speeds up and disappears past guard dogs and behind the gates of the old governor's palace.
But the last vehicle, a military jeep, screeches to a halt, turns to the side and stops in front of the American woman. An officer jumps out, wielding an automatic weapon. The American smiles, but the officer doesn't.
The American puts up a spirited fight that consists of hysterical screams, a great deal of arm-waving and, finally, tears. The soldiers carry automatic pistols. The woman is thrown into the back of the Jeep, searched and, finally, left standing in the road, pale and sobbing. She will leave the country on the next flight.
"It was very reckless of that woman. It was very stupid. The president is quite touchy when he sees cameras." Brigadier General Manuel Nguema Mba, minister of national security, is a friendly man with bad teeth and an easy, guffawing laugh. He is the man to whom human rights organization Amnesty International addresses all of its appeals. According to reports by the United Nations Commission for Human Rights, the minister has been known to supervise the torture of political enemies. The government in Malabo believes that torturing prisoners is not a violation of human rights, because prisoners have no rights.
The US government for many years listed the regime as a junta that uses torture to maintain its grip on power. Indeed, it was only after Sept. 11, 2001 that Equatorial Guinea was suddenly transformed from a pariah state into a key element in the new American oil strategy. A few months after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Walter Kansteiner, assistant secretary of state for African Affairs in the Bush administration, called together a meeting of oil barons: "Bring that oil home." He was talking about African oil, and "home," in his view, wasn't Malabo.
The Americans hope that the Gulf of Guinea will make them less dependent on the Persian Gulf. They want to be able to fill up their SUVs in Idaho without having the uncomfortable feeling that they may be enriching their political enemies.
The Kuwait of Africa
Until Sept. 11, US President George W. Bush treated Africa as a sort of global Bronx -- incorrigibly poor, black and full of disgusting epidemics. But then his advisors placed a set of reports on his desk describing Malabo as the "Kuwait of Africa."
In the spring of 2002, the pro-administration African Oil Policy Initiative Group described the region as being of "vital interest" to the United States and recommended establishing a military base there.
Robert Murphy of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence summarized the greatest advantage of African oil for the United States thusly: "Much of the oil in West Africa is offshore, which separates it from domestic political or social unrest." What he meant was that the oil can be shipped directly overseas without having to pass through complicated canals and deltas, and without the risk of pipelines being blown up by some liberation group.
President Bush had breakfast with Teodoro Obiang in 2002. There is a photograph of the meeting, which Obiang would have liked to take home. But the people at National Security refused to release it. The West African leader's government was still too unsavory for the Bush administration to openly declare it an ally.
The State Department's files contained information about the "Black Beach parties" Obiang had organized during the Macías era. Prodded with red-hot iron bars, prisoners were forced to dance around a fire for hours, singing songs of praise to the dictator.
But now the Bush administration was caught up in its new "War on Terror." Against the objections of human rights groups, Bush promised to reopen the US embassy in Malabo soon.
A Voice of America relay station on São Tomé was upgraded, enabling the broadcaster to cover large sections of Africa. The US now plans to build a military base on the island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe to protect the oil in this new and better gulf.
Meanwhile, drilling platforms protrude like claims in the gulf off the coast of Malabo. Exxon, Amerada Hess (Triton), Chevron, Marathon. Licenses have been issued almost exclusively to US companies. The Bush administration's oil connections are legendary. The former CEO of Triton once made George W. a multimillionaire by selling him the Texas Rangers. Former President George H.W. Bush's ambassador in Malabo later worked as a consultant to Ocean Energy.
According to a ranking compiled by Transparency International, Equatorial Guinea is one of the world's seven most corrupt nations. The country's confidence index is so low it's barely detectable.
This isn’t contradicted by the fact that oil companies, when interviewed, emphasize their cooperative relationships with the Obiang government.
A 2004 US Senate report on money laundering revealed details of the oil business in Malabo. According to the report, oil companies have paid portions of Equatorial Guinea's share of the proceeds directly to the president's family. At one time, the balance in Obiang's accounts with Riggs Bank in Washington amounted to $700 million.
An investigation was launched into possible violations of laws against money laundering. Riggs paid $25 million in fines.
According to the IMF, oil revenues are now being paid into accounts at the Central Bank of Central African States. There are also overseas accounts controlled entirely by the president.
The Riggs exposure was unpleasant, forcing the oil companies to put their PR machinery into action. Lobbyists and law firms were paid to improve President Obiang's image. Exxon sent truckloads of medications into Equatorial Guinea's villages. Energy conglomerate Marathon launched a program to spray every house on the island with insecticide to bring down the mosquito population. The four companies' increased their expenditures for "charity" to an estimated $20 million. That's a lot of money. About a quarter of one percent of their entire investment.
By 2015 the United States expects to derive 25 percent of its oil imports from sub-Saharan Africa, which would surpass imports from the Persian Gulf.
With estimated reserves of 1.77 billion barrels of oil, Equatorial Guinea currently produces 403,000 barrels a day. The country has the largest oil reserves per capita in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the past few years, "Equatorial Guinea" -- essentially the private property of President Obiang -- collected 20 to 35 percent of the foreign oil companies' revenues. This is low compared to Nigeria and Angola. But sometimes it's a good idea not to ask for too much. Especially when you are the president of a small country with poor, but powerful neighbors.
The oil is pumped from wells at depths of up to 1,300 meters (4,265 feet) and processed at sea. Natural gas is taken to Malabo, where it is liquefied. Plans are on the table to develop Equatorial Guinea into an Atlantic hub in the natural gas business. Marathon has just completed a $1.4 billion natural gas liquefaction facility. British Gas has bought up Marathon's entire supply of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, for the next 17 years, and is having two tankers built in South Korea solely for the purpose of transporting the LNG. Starting next year the lion's share, 3.4 million tons, will be shipped to Lake Charles, Louisiana. It's a well-traveled route. Some of the towns in Louisiana's Mississippi delta still have African names. This is where the slaves landed, the slaves of Malabo.
"We don't photograph the president's car. This is Malabo, not Washington, DC," says the minister. In Togo, a mercenary once detonated a bomb with a remote control device hidden in a camera. The word gets around among the powerful in the region.
The minister wears long, pointy shoes made of crocodile leather. There is something unpleasant about them. "Well, let's not talk about that anymore. The matter is settled. How do you like my hotel?"
Minister Mba has crushed several attempts to overthrow the president. As a reward, he was permitted to build a residential complex along the Carretera del Aeropuerto, complete with offices, a surprisingly expensive hotel and around-the-clock security.
The complex is called Paraíso. "The name was my idea," says the minister. Then his telephone rings and he disappears into the next room without saying a word. Anyone who wants to make money in Malabo these days checks into the Paraíso. The air in the lobby is chilled and saturated with smoke. A game of Britain's professional football Premier League is playing on a flat screen TV. A group of Israeli military advisors, a representative of a company that makes patrol boats and James "Jaydee" Dale are all sitting in armchairs in the lobby.
Dale is a retired Coast Guard general, a good-natured, red-faced man from the US South who represents an outfit called MPRI. MPRI is one of the largest private military agencies, and it generally operates in places where the Pentagon prefers to remain under the radar. This is MPRI's motto: If you work for pig farmers, you have to go to places where it stinks.
That was what brought Dale to Malabo.
"If you pick a fight with the president, you can forget about the rules," he says. MPRI has worked for the Pentagon in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. The State Department has hired Dale and his staff to spend a year training the country's coast guard to protect the drilling platforms.
Dale is too well paid to provide more detailed information. His boss, on the other hand, once said this about the Obiang regime: "They do have a poor human rights record, but so did the Nazi government, and we did pretty well with Germany after World War II."
Washington's policy is not to send official military advisors to Malabo, but rather to leave the job to private firms. The US calls this approach a "low profile" policy. Its new embassy is an unassuming residential building on the road to the airport with a chicken strolling in the yard. There are no marines, only two local guards and a simple sign on the door that reads "US Embassy Equatorial Guinea." The consular officer, Maureen McGovern, is so inconspicuous that she is sometimes mistaken for a nanny at receptions.
It's a low-key presence. The rent for the building is paid directly to the owner. He is the Minister of National Security -- the man with the crocodile leather shoes.
The crowd of discreet military advisors and representatives of weapons firms at the Hotel Paraíso has a lot to do with the high price of oil, with terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and with an aging Boeing 727 that was stopped in March 2004 during a stopover in Harare, Zimbabwe. The plane was filled with bolt cutters, pepper spray, sledgehammers and mercenaries -- and it was on its way to Malabo.
The tip had come from South Africa. An advance commando was already waiting in Malabo. Oddly enough, one of the financial backers of the venture had the same last name as the former British prime minister. Even more oddly, the man was indeed Mark Thatcher.
"It was a lousy attempt to overthrow Obiang to get at his money," a German diplomat in Berlin said. "Apparently they based their preparations entirely on the book by Forsyth. They even copied the code name."
Margaret Thatcher paid £165,000 ($313,062) in bail to secure the release of her idolized son. The other mercenaries were sentenced and recently released, with the exception of a German named Gerhard Merz, who died at "Black Beach" after being held for only a few days.
Minister Manuel Mba held the opposition leader, in exile in Spain, responsible for the coup attempt and demanded his immediate extradition. Others believe to this day that the coup was staged as an excuse to reallocate drilling rights.
In return for his role in averting the coup, an icon of the fight against apartheid, South African businessman Tokyo Sexwale, was promised oil fields in section R, an area that had previously been reserved for French oil company Total.
Oilmen sit around tables covered with empty beer bottles at the Hotel Paraíso late into the evening. Later, during karaoke, one of them jumps, fully clothed, into the pool. They come from northern England, Croatia, Houston and the Philippines.
"I have two lives," says Mark, a drilling engineer with Marathon, accompanied by a girl with melancholy eyes. He's used his oil earnings to buy a farm in Yorkshire, complete with horses for his two daughters and surrounded by a hedge where blackbirds make their nests.
In Malabo, he always has a girl from Cameroon in his room, swallows large amounts of high-dosage malaria pills and spends three-month, seven-day a week, around-the-clock shifts working on a drilling platform. He says: "I have trouble explaining life here to people at home."
Most of Marathon's men are taken directly from the airport to the company-owned complex on the Punta Europa peninsula, a sort of high-security Green Zone in the rainforest, complete with Wi-Fi Internet access, signs that read "Speed Limit 25 KPH" and air-conditioned bungalows with local phone service for calls to Houston.
Four thousand people live here, including about 1,000 Americans. Marathon bought the roughly 120-acre site directly from the president. It has its own water and power system, hospitals and supermarkets. The oil people call the complex "Pleasantville."
Despite the comforts here, everyone counts the days before boarding the "Houston Express," a direct flight home. Hardly anyone ever sets foot in downtown Malabo, only a few kilometers away.
Malabo sits like a bead of sweat above its harbor, a lethargic collection of colonial buildings, homemade-looking shacks, "rendezvous" bars and the ostentatious new houses of the kleptocracy. The city appears to be crawling toward its future at a snail's pace. Of its population of 50,000, there are no beggars and no smiles.
Only 15 years ago, Malabo's telephone book consisted of two pages, with listings by first name only. The city's only hotel had no water, no power and no kitchen. Cars were rare and asphalt was unknown.
Nowadays Toyotas are even parked in front of slum huts, and mobile phones outnumber inhabitants. But the city still lacks running water. Various sanitation projects have been initiated, paid for with foreign aid and then canceled without any visible results.
There is some construction underway in the city's old section, the Spanish quarter. Practically everything built in Malabo belongs to the Obiang clan. The standard response to "Who is building this hotel?" is "the president." And the owner of this fantastically elegant apartment building? "Hassan, the president's youngest son." And who has mechanics flown in from Maranello to service his Ferraris? "Teodoríno, the president's son and minister of agriculture."
Power and arrogance are reflected in the stretch SUVs parked at odd angles, in the facades of air-conditioned office buildings, in the mirrored sunglasses of police officers and in their whips made of power cables, which they use to drive passengers onto the ferry.
One of the few Europeans who feels comfortable in Malabo is Jean-Louis Ecard, a native of the French region of Burgundy. He has been through four marriages that are more or less over, prides himself on his resemblance to the late Anthony Quinn and runs the Le Bourguignon restaurant in the French cultural center. "Poverty? Don't be fooled," he says. "The people live in filth, but they have cars in front of their houses. There are more mobile phones than residents here. Hey!" A brown rat rushes past and a waiter kicks it against a wall. "This is Malabo. It has nothing in common with the rest of Africa. Have you seen anyone smiling here? You see? They don't like foreigners. The whites are thieves, missionaries or some other form of insult, and immigrants are despised and beaten."
Ecard has lived in Malabo long enough to be qualified to say things like: "The people here are not ready for democracy. The Europeans should take a page from the Americans' book. They know what they're doing. All they want is their oil, not their souls."
Ecard is an eccentric. Hardly anyone speaks freely in Malabo, not as long as there is Black Beach prison and its torture chambers. Some oil company employees have already been flown out quickly for voicing criticism of the regime. Even Pleasantville has ears. And even behind the wall of a monastery above the harbor, the head monk closes the door before he speaks, saying that he has had to bail out too many priests from Black Beach. "Those who tell the truth end up in jail." He talks about plane crashes that no one is allowed to discuss, and about Annabón Island, where the government is burying nuclear waste in return for a lot of money.
"There was a cholera epidemic last year. We had to read masses day and night and bury the dead. The government still denies that there was even an epidemic. It turned down Spain's offer of assistance."
The monk says: "Wealth has descended on the country like a pestilence, and it's stifling the local economy. Values no longer exist. Everyone who is part of it feels important. No one wants to learn. All they want are the oil dollars."
The "water tank principle"
It's a phenomenon economists call the " curse of raw materials." Why work when money is bubbling out of the ground? Entire cities disintegrate into lethargy, agriculture and the trades fall into decline and society turns into an amalgam of oil pensioners, petroleum profiteurs and beneficiaries. Immigrants do the work. Society becomes a bourgeoisie that's at the mercy of the crude oil price, passively watching as oil tankers sail westward along the horizon. Just as it is in Kuwait.
And as it is in Kuwait, Malabo's supermarkets already sell eggs imported from Holland and meat imported from Spain. The country's mainland has its own sources of mineral water, and yet mineral water is imported from Portugal.
Obiang promised to cooperate with the World Bank, and he replaced a few of his relatives in government posts with technocrats. But the capital Malabo still has no running water, no reliable power supply and no healthcare system worth mentioning. The Economist writes in its current country report that "there appears to be no sign that Mr. Obiang has any real interest in economic reforms beyond rhetoric and cultivating his image."
The IMF has recommended that Obiang establish a resource fund based on models in Botswana and Norway. The country's oil dollars would be deposited into the fund and distributed based on sensible decisions. But that would require the software of a modern state. It would require functioning ministries, legal certainty and transparency. None of these things exist in Manabo. Instead, the economy is based on what could be termed a water tank principle. The coffers of the powerful and their extended families are already filled to overflowing. Water now reaches the middle classes, and the first drops are already trickling to the bottom. There are even cars parked in the slums. They are little more than molecules in the country's flood of wealth, but this seems sufficient to keep the people in check. Hope is the strongest weapon of repression.
There is no opposition of any consequence. Severo Moto, the chairman of the Progress Party who fled the country, is now in Madrid and is forced to look on as Teodoro Obiang is received with full honors by the European Commission.
At night, the Punta Europe peninsula and its modern facilities sticks out like an orange, constantly humming spaceship amidst the banyan trees. The man with the graying temples comes from Houston. He has attended countless top meetings at Marathon and Exxon. The man likes his job, which explains why he doesn't want to reveal his name.
He says: "This is the shit-hole of the planet. Our bosses hate the corruption, they hate these guys and most of all they hate the protocol. They're oil titans who have more people working for them than this place has residents. They fly in from Houston in their Lear jets. When they get here, they meet with a minister who decides to cancel the negotiations if anyone dares to sit down before he does or neglects to call him Excelentíssimo."
There are the loud, backslapping Texans, accustomed to rough talk and country music clubs. And then there are the military men wearing the outfits of cabinet ministers, the formerly colonized who think in terms of the Fang and the Bubi tribes, trapped in a web of paternal and maternal lines.
But that's the deal. What the Texans want is to be left alone while they extract as many resources as possible from the ocean floor off Malabo between now and 2032, and then they want to get out as quickly as possible. In return, the regime wants 25 cents on the dollar and the guarantee that it will be left alone: no coup, no intervention, no excessive talk of human rights. And at some point, the president wants that photo with George W. Bush.
Money is the issue here, not souls. There may be some mention of cooperation with local officials in the Marathon and Exxon business reports. But the superficial friendliness masks a different tone altogether. "The Texans know, of course, that their business partner sitting across the table is no 'Excellency,' but in truth a 'son of a bitch.' Deep in their hearts, they despise themselves. Both sides despise themselves. And each side knows that this is true of the other."
It doesn't fit together. Those on one side of the equation are from the slave island, and those on the other are the descendants of plantation owners. Master and slave. Black and white. Water and oil.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Will the fight for resources result in a new Cold War?
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