Equatorial Guinea awaits oil benefits

BBC News, Friday 16 November 2001, 18:24 GMT

There is a strange phrase the people of the small country of Equatorial Guinea say to visitors with a practised regularity.

If you open your mouth and stick out your tongue for long enough someone will build on it.

Perhaps it is a national joke.

But if there is anything that suggests there are changes afoot, in the economic viability of a country for long mired in poverty, then it is the explosion in construction, both public and private.

Take a stroll around the capital, Malabo, its quaint old colonial Spanish architecture, much of it shabby and dilapidated, sits cheek by jowl with brash new buildings, an international conference centre, hotels and banks.

Strange mix

Some are in dazzling and resplendent white, others, such as the shiny social security headquarters, in soft coral pink.

In between are structures with the odd, amorphous anonymity of the half-completed; smothered in sounds of tapping hammers and screeching saws.

Hop the 600km or so from Malabo on the island of Bioko, to Bata, the second city and capital of the country's mainland enclave of Rio Muni, and the situation is much the same, though less marked.

Everyone here knows why the nation's main towns are in the process of transformation; unrecognisable from barely five years ago.

The answer is oil.

The Spanish, who ruled the colony for 190 years until October 1968, first offered international tenders in 1965 but seemed to lose interest after independence.

Oil gushes

It was not until 1991 that production started in the relatively small Alba gas field off the coast of Malabo, with large scale output starting five years later by various international oil companies.

Last year they contributed some $5bn to the economy and around 200,000 barrels a day are pumped.

This country of 475,000 people is seeing extraordinary growth and is expected to be the world's fastest growing in 2001.

The finance ministry expects a rate of 70% or so, tailing off to something like 20% in 2002.

However, transformations can be both impressive and superficial.

For some, especially those in government, officialdom and for those working in the oil industry, even at a relatively low level, there really is a lot of money washing around.

Slum and squalor

Some of the new construction, especially in suburbs like Ela Nguema in the capital, involves small concrete shacks set tightly among older houses, run down and rickety.

But after five years of oil wealth permeating the economy, journalists are still able to write that for most Equato-Guineans nothing much has changed.

In Malabo's 'New Building' slums or areas outside the capital the poverty and squalor are palpable and can almost be tasted on the air.

One extensively travelled head of a bilateral agency told me; It is quite simply the worst poverty I have ever seen.

The government, led by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo since he deposed his uncle in 1979, obviously has answers for its critics.

Rampant corruption

Officials say that due to unfavourable deals with the oil companies to encourage them to come in the first place they receive only a fraction of that $5bn.

This year they expect to have around $400m to play with.

Information, Tourism and Culture Minisiter Lucas Esono says that they need time.

We have only had this money for five years. People must be patient. It's not as if we can go round dishing out money to people in the streets, is it?

Mr Esso adds: We have plans to build schools and hospitals and income generation schemes for the poor, these things are in place.

When questioned about his sense of priorities and asked why they had money to build an international conference centre and modernise the airport—which admittedly has a terminal which is almost comically tiny—he looked at me darkly before replying.

‘Serious’ nation

Look, some countries have five conference centres and you would deny us the only one we have.

And that seems to be the point. The authorities perhaps see their overriding aim as to have what other countries have, to be seen as a serious nation.

Some commentators maintain that is very much business as usual where venal leaders look after their own interests and busily line their pockets.

It is certainly true that the foreign oil workers flooding into the country claim that levels of graft and corruption are exceedingly high.

One angry local journalist told me: Our per capita GDP is now $2,220. But look around you, walk through our streets, where is it?

Everyone thinks things are improving but they are not. Everything is just the same, he said.

Not everyone shares that bleak view. Juanin, for example, a cook and waiter in Malabo, is inclined to be optimistic. We haven't seen any oil money yet, but we hope we will soon. It's good to stay hopeful.