Oil Gives African Nation a Chance for Change

By Douglas Farah, The Washington Post, Sunday 13 May 2001; Page A16

Despite Leader's Promises, Many Fear People of Equatorial Guinea Will Not Benefit From Windfall

MALABO, Equatorial Guinea—From the ramshackle wooden airport building in a clearing carved out of the jungle, down the main street with its scattering of new stoplights, to the presidential compound with its Moroccan bodyguards, there is little to suggest that this is the capital of one of Africa's richest nations.

That could soon change. Oil is surging from new fields and profits are beginning to flow. For the first time in its brutal history, Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony of 475,000 people that for decades has been one of Africa's most isolated and impoverished countries, has a chance at prosperity and integration into the world economy.

The oil boom—Equatorial Guinea is now the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa behind giants Nigeria and Angola—has given the country a moment of opportunity that African nations rarely encounter and have historically squandered: the possibility of turning a bonanza in natural resources into an antidote for poverty and an incentive for building democracy and civil society.

So far, the signs in Equatorial Guinea are not encouraging. Although glass-fronted bank buildings are rising in Malabo—and cell phones, sport-utility vehicles, mansions and other signs of wealth and status have become commonplace nearly overnight—many diplomats, oil executives and analysts here see few indications that the country is breaking with its history of corrupt, repressive one-family rule and economic stagnation.

Equatorial Guinea is at a crossroads: They will either blow it spectacularly, or they could succeed, said a U.S. official. But so far there is little evidence they will succeed or that the wealth will be devoted to public good.

Natural riches have often proved to be more of a curse than a blessing for African nations. On one hand, the relative prosperity of countries such as South Africa and Botswana can be traced directly to mineral riches. On the other, diamonds are fueling wars in Sierra Leone, Congo and Angola. And throughout the 1980s and '90s, oil money fed such a degree of corruption and brutality in Nigeria under military dictators that the bankrupt state almost collapsed.

Now, in Equatorial Guinea, petroleum revenues have given one of the poorest countries in the world an opportunity to give its people development, said Robert Lacey, World Bank country representative for Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon. But in order to do that, it is absolutely essential to ensure the oil money is used in a transparent, open way for development.

Equatorial Guinea, which sits partly on the African mainland and partly on an island off the coast of Cameroon, is pumping 210,000 barrels of oil a day. Production is expected to climb 20 percent by next year and could reach a barrel a day for each of the 475,000 citizens within three years, oil industry sources said. Already about $5 billion has poured in from American investors, according to U.S. government figures, ranking Equatorial Guinea behind only South Africa, Nigeria and Angola in sub-Saharan Africa.

But even with economic growth averaging more than 20 percent a year for the past three years and per capita income jumping from $390 in 1995 to $1,170 today, according to African Development Bank figures, the new wealth has not trickled down very far.

So far I can only say I have seen no change in my life, said Antonio Abogo, driving his battered taxi near his home in the slum of Newbuil—short for new building.

We hear there is oil money, we see foreigners coming with money, Abogo said, but we don't get to touch the money. Not yet. Maybe never.

Used during colonial times to work the area's rich cocoa fields, most inhabitants of Equatorial Guinea have known only abject poverty and rapacious exploitation for centuries.

Following independence from Spain in 1968, the country's first president, Francisco Macias, proclaimed himself God's unique miracle. His country, however, became known as Africa's concentration camp. Macias ran the economy into the ground, cut off most relations with the outside world and executed or drove into exile more than a third of the population.

In 1979, he was overthrown and executed by Teodoro Obiang Nguema, his nephew, security chief and right-hand man. Obiang ruled for 17 years before submitting to elections, and captured 98 percent of the vote in 1996 balloting that the U.S. State Department said was marred by extensive fraud and intimidation.

Obiang and his Mongomo clan of the Fang ethnic group still exercise an almost absolute grip on power. His brother is the head of the nation's security forces and controls the election board. One son is the minister of forestry, while another is the key contact with oil companies at the Ministry of Mines and Energy. A nephew is national treasurer, and at least five of the nation's eight generals are close relatives. But Obiang, fearful of palace intrigues, entrusts his personal security only to Moroccan guards.

Oil was discovered here in 1996, but until this year, government officials, oil executives and diplomats said, most of the revenue went to oil companies to recover investment costs. What little went to the government was spent on foreign debt and efforts to rebuild a decaying infrastructure.

This will be the first year in which the government reaps large gains from oil. Oil revenue is projected to rise from $140 million to about $185 million; in 1999, the total government budget was $47 million. Obiang, in a May 1 speech, promised the money would be used to eradicate poverty and improve education and health. He said he had already ordered the minimum wage for oil workers to be doubled.

From this year forward, things will be changing, Obiang said. These are the good years. We must not waste them.

But diplomats, opposition politicians and aid workers say the government is unwilling to account for oil revenue or present a plan to use the money.

The president has dictatorial powers and is not controlled by laws or the constitution, said Placido Mico Abogo, the best-known opposition leader, who has been jailed several times. What we are seeing now is the true pillaging of our country. What they are leaving us are the crumbs.

For example, until last month, government officials and oil company executives said, oil companies could hire only members of Obiang's Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea. Largely because of the shortage of qualified workers, the restriction was lifted at the oil companies' request.

At the rundown airport, oil money has paid for a new glass presidential wing, which sits away from the dark, dingy main terminal and can be used only by Obiang and the ruling elite. The government recently announced that it will provide new SUVs for the 79 Obiang supporters in the 80-seat Legislative Assembly.

Outside the capital, Equatorial Guinea—which is a little smaller than Maryland—has less than 40 miles of paved roads. Many people live on abandoned and overgrown cocoa plantations, surviving mostly on bush meat, bananas and a few subsistence crops.

I have heard of oil, said a vendor at a roadside stand with several wild rats, a dietary staple here, tied on a rack. But I don't really know what it is. It means nothing to me.

Still, there are some signs of change.

On the political front, diplomats and opposition leaders said, Obiang has eased harassment of the opposition and the systematic use of torture, although serious abuses continue.

The government is not using the more brutal methods now, but the structure and rapaciousness of the regime have not changed, said a longtime diplomat here. This country is the personal property of the president and his family. But at the same time, there are some important gestures being made.

For example, he said, opposition leader Mico is no longer in hiding, and his party was allowed to hold a convention in February. Eleven people accused of plotting a coup in 1998 were pardoned this year—a far cry from the days of Macias, who on Christmas 1975 executed 150 alleged coup plotters in the national stadium while a band played Those Were the Days.

In addition, at least some of country's physical infrastructure is being rebuilt—but not without problems.

CMS Energy, a major partner in the new $420 million gas plant here, installed a new electrical generator that gave the capital its first reliable energy source in decades. However, because the rest of the power grid is decrepit, blackouts are still common.

The 32-mile road from the capital to Luba—the only other town on the island part of the nation—was supposed to be repaved to facilitate commerce, and oil companies are building a new port there. But for reasons no one could explain, the new road goes only 20 miles, then reverts to the rutted and pocked track that was there before.

Look, we can't even finish the one road on the island, a local businessman said. The money simply disappeared for the last bit. That tells you everything about how things will go.