On January 12, 2004, George W. Bush issued a presidential proclamation that bars corrupt foreign officials from entering the United States. So why was Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the blatantly corrupt dictator of the West African nation of Equatorial Guinea, in Washington, D.C., last week?
The answer is oil. Tiny Equatorial Guinea (pop. 540,109) is the third-largest oil exporter in sub-Saharan Africa. Ever since large energy reserves
were discovered there in 1996, American firms have invested some $5 billion in the territory, propping up Obiang—who came
to power by whacking his own uncle in a 1979 coup—in the process.
Obiang treats Equatorial Guinea's national treasury like his personal checking account. While his official monthly salary
is equivalent to roughly $5,000 a month, a 2004 Senate investigation found that Obiang and his wife had personal accounts
worth at least $13 million at Riggs Banks (now PNC Bank) in Washington. I once asked a member of the House Subcommittee on
Africa if he thought such wealth suggested gross corruption on the part of Obiang. “Either that,” the congressman replied,
“or he's an assiduous saver.”
Obiang was reelected president in 2002 with 97.1 percent of the vote, a margin of victory that suggests certain irregularities.
But the Bush Administration's democracy-promotion apparatus moved quickly to stick a smiley face on the vote. The State Department's “Press Guidance” statement (I was able to obtain a leaked copy) described Obiang's campaign as “very vigorous and very professional”;
the United States, it said, was now “focused on the future” as far as Obiang was concerned.
“Thank you very much for your presence here,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said to Obiang at a press conference last week. “You are a good friend and we welcome you.” Rice didn't mention that her own department's 2006 human rights report on Equatorial Guinea, released 35 days before the press conference, laid out a laundry list of abuses that included torture,
arbitrary arrest, judicial corruption, child labor, forced labor, and “severe restrictions” on freedoms of speech and press.
“In 2004,” the report stated, “senior government officials [of Equatorial Guinea] told foreign diplomats that human rights
did not apply to criminals and that torture of known criminals was not a human rights abuse.”
The photo-op with Rice was only one part of Obiang's visit; he was also here to discuss the “social infrastructure and sustainable
development fund” he is creating with the help of the State Department and a San Francisco–based group called Business for Social Responsibility (BSR). For a fee, companies can join BSR and thereby demonstrate their social consciousness; the group's members include
well-known do-gooders such as Nike, Wal-Mart, Chevron, and ExxonMobil. (ExxonMobil is certainly well-known to Obiang, having once allowed “El Jefe” to buy a stake in a joint oil-trading business
for $2,300 that the Senate investigation found to be worth $645,000 after only six years.)
The development fund is badly needed, but it has not yet launched, despite being in development for nearly two years. It's
not for lack of money. Obiang's government has raked in billions of dollars in oil revenues during the past decade, but has
thus far spent virtually nothing on programs for the poor. Figures from the IMF show that the nation spent 6.3 percent of
its budget on health care between 1992 and 1996. Since 1996, when major oil deposits were discovered, health spending is down
to 1.23 percent, and over the same period education spending has been roughly halved.
Given Equatorial Guinea's record of corruption and human rights abuses, one would think that BSR and the State Department
would have devised strict safeguards to ensure that the fund would be more than an empty P.R. gesture. But think again. Despite
the findings of the U.S. Senate (not to mention the dictates of common sense) Obiang is the head of the new fund and must
approve any expenditure over $10,000. So far, according to a U.S. Government handout, he has pledged only $15 million—“to
support implementation.” That represents less than half of one percent of what his government netted in oil revenue between
2000 and 2004.
Instead of showing genuine concern for the people of Equatorial Guinea, the State Department has merely arranged for our friend
Obiang to improve his image. The Bush Administration is in bed with a man who, on state radio in Equatorial Guinea, has been
said to be “like God in heaven” who holds “all power over men and things.”
A 2005 profile of Obiang from Mother Jones.
A profile of Obiang from BBC News; the BBC's country profile of Equatorial Guinea.
The State Department transcript documenting Condoleezza Rice's April 12 meeting with Obiang.
and...Obiang: Dictator of the Month for March 2005
Ken Silverstein is the Washington Editor for Harper's Magazine, and a regular contributor to both the print and web version of Harper's.
© 2006 Harper's Magazine