March 29, 2011 § 3 Comments
Who lives there?: Around six hundred thousand people. The main part of Equatorial Guinea (not to be confused with the separate nations of Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, New Guinea, Papua New Guinea, Guyana, French Guiana, or Ghana) is a rectangle of land on the west coast of Africa in between Cameroon and Gabon.
In addition there are four reasonably sized islands about 50-200 miles of the coast of those nations. The middle two, opposite mainland Equatorial Guinea, form their own independent nation – Sao Tome and Principe – whereas the top and bottom islands (illogically the ones not actually opposite Equatorial Guinea) are part of the nation of Equatorial Guinea.
The bottom island – Annobon – is almost uninhabited, containing only 5,000 or so people in two towns both of which, helpfully, are called San Antonio. However the top island – Bioko – is heavily populated, containing Equatorial Guinea’s capital city, Malabo, and over 125,000 people.
Almost all are Catholic. Around 80% of the population are of Fang ethnicity – although there are over 67 different Fang tribes and many Fang have stronger tribal than ethnic identity. The Fang used to only live on the mainland but are now also a majority on Bioko. The native inhabitants of Bioko -the Bubi – were almost wiped out in the 1970s (more on that later) but still make up 15% of the population of the entire nation. The other major ethnic group are the Bantu Beach Tribes. For a long time the Fang only inhabited the interior, and the village of Niefang served as the extreme western limit of Fang habitation – but these days the Fang have largely subsumed the Beach Tribes.
The official languages are Spanish (spoken by 90%) and French (spoken by 2%). Meanwhile day to day conversation mostly happens in Fang, Bube, or Annobonese, depending on the location – all these languages are officially recognised but only as regional languages. There are various dialects of Fang, all mutually intelligible: those in the north speak Fang-Ntumu, those in the south speak Fang-Okah. Fang in Cameroon speak a third dialect, Bulu Fang, and were traditionally thought of as the great rivals to the Equatoguniean Fang.
Despite having virtually no Portuguese speakers, for various historic reasons there have been a series of attempts to make Portuguese an official language. To this end Equatorial Guinea is an associate member of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (that august body has never been that fussy about any of their member countries actually speaking Portuguese and is currently in membership talks with: Andorra, Morocco, the Philippines, Venezuela, Croatia, Romania, the Ukraine, Indonesia, Swaziland, Australia, and Luxembourg – not to mention Gallicia, Malacca, and Goa who will become full members pending home government approval despite being neither Portuguese speaking nor countries). It says a lot about Equatorial Guinea that opinions differ as to whether the adoption of Portuguese as an official language has been achieved.
How does the system work? (the theory):The president exercises virtually all power. They are elected by straightforward first past the post for a seven year term with no limit.
The legislative body is the unicameral Chamber of People’s Representatives. It has 100 members elected for a four year term by d’Hondt PR on a closed list. There is no threshold. The government and PM is in any case appointed by the President.
Equatorial Guinea is divided into two regions (inland and island) which are further divided seven provinces. Each has a governor appointed by the president, with most power being concentrated at the provincial level. Provinces are further divided into districts which have elected local councils – albeit this tier has little power and the President’s Ministry of Territorial Administration can step in to overturn decisions it does not like.
How does the system work? (the practice): Elections are rigged and lack all credibility. This is also one of the most corrupt countries in the world and the government has the legal right to censor the press – which it does.
How did we get here?: Equatoguinean history, like Equatoguinean demographics, is really interesting – at least to me – and since nobody is making you read this I am going to write about it. So there.
Like much of Central Africa Equatorial Guinea was home to only pygmy people, very few of whom remain, until fairly recently. Waves of Bantu migration (of whom the Fang were one) from further north and west settled the area between the 17th and 19th century. The islands of Equatorial Guinea were thus actually settled by the Portuguese before the mainland was settled by the Fang. Many of the island tribes – in particular the Annobon – were Angolan in origin and were brought to the islands as slaves by the Portuguese.
The Portuguese colonised the islands from 1474 onwards. In 1778, in exchange for considerably extending Brazil’s territory, the islands were ceded to Spain as was the right to the area of the mainland which is now Equatorial Guinea. The Spanish attempted to colonise the mainland straight away but gave up after all the settlers died of Yellow Fever.
In 1827 the British established a colony on Bioko, ostensibly to combat the slave trade although many British traders weren’t above dabbling in slavery themselves. The mainland finally started to be colonised by European powers at the very end of the 19th century (by which time the Fang were well established) and this brought the French, British, and Spanish into conflict. This resulted in the 1900 Treaty of Paris which fixed the borders of the current nation and awarded it to Spain (apart from two small Spanish exclaves surrounded by Morocco this was the only part of mainland Africa ever to be Spanish). Only after this was the mainland brought under effective Spanish control with the introduction of massive Cacao plantations worked by thousands of Nigerian labourers.
From then until 1960 not much happened, although the nation was involved in two asides to European history: during world war one when the French and the British conquered the (at that stage) surrounding German colony of Cameroon the German Army used this (neutral) territory to stage a Dunkirk style escape. In 1936 when the Spanish Civil War broke out the colony initially stayed loyal to the Republicans. However, thinking they would do less damage overseas, the Republicans sent the elements of the navy that were of dubious loyalty to the territory. Predictably these ships mutinied, joined the fascist side, and armed sailors overran the island of Bioko. However the mainland stayed republican for another couple of months until invaded from Bioko.
In 1959 Spain introduced limited democracy to the colony. As mainland Spain was still under the rule of a fascist dictatorship this meant there was actually more democracy in the colonies than there was in Spain at the time. These early years were dominated by two political forces: there was the largely Bibi dominated Movement for the Self-Determination of Bioko Island who wanted independence and the establishment of two separate nations -one island, one mainland; and then there was the Fang dominated United National Workers’ Party (PUNT) who wanted one independent nation state.
The latter won out and in 1968, under pressure from the UN, the entire colony was given independence as Equatorial Guinea. PUNT’s leader, Francisco Macías Nguema, became President. He was a douche.
Macías was a fairly typical psychotic kleptomaniac with delusions of grandeur. Some of the things he did will be familiar to students of nutbar world leaders, but some really were uniquely cruel, stupid and counter-productive. Two of things he did have consequences to this day:
One was to utterly crush all opposition movements and all non-Fang groups. The result is that to this day virtually all political leaders, movements, and organisations of any kind are almost entirely Fang based, and there is no culture of democratic opposition.
The other was to ban all schooling, forcibly close all schools (and Churches least they be used as schools), and prohibit all bar a handful of books (books could be banned for containing forbidden words such as “intellectual”). This resulted in Equatorial Guinea falling from having one of the highest GDPs, literacy rates, and one of the best healthcare systems (albeit at independence there were less than 10 native born doctors and lawyers in the entire country) in Africa into dire poverty, health deprivation and illiteracy. Two thirds of the population of Equatorial Guniea died whilst Macías was in power.
Other things he did were to introduce one party rule, take on a series of stupid names (the Unique Miracle, Grand Master of Education, Science, and Culture, Masie Nguema Biyogo Ñegue Ndong), ban fishing and destroy almost all boats (not a great move on an island nation), starve his Prime Minister to death, “Africanise” the name of virtually everything to his own name, shoot his Treasury Minister and move the entire federal reserve into his own house, and forbid any accounting of public money. His cruelty seemed to know no bounds, the notorious Black Beach prison was regarded as one of the most inhumane places on earth and on Christmas day 1975 he had 150 political dissidents executed in the national football stadium whilst loudspeakers played Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days” on constant loop.
Some of his mania may be explained by the fact that he daily drank gallons of the powerful hallucinogenic Iboga dissolved in “bhang” or Cannabis tea.
In 1979 Macías’ nephew Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, a former director of the Black Beach, overthrew him in a military coup and had him executed. He, and his PDGE, have been in power ever since. Obiang has proven himself better than Macías only in the way that Pol Pot was better than Cthulhu. On the plus side he reintroduced multi-party elections in 1990 and “banned” torture in 20o6. On the down side journalists have gone on record to say that his regime is one of the most corrupt, ethnocentric, oppressive and undemocratic in the world. He has accrued a personal fortune of $700 million as President (all in US bank accounts) whilst 70% of the population live on less than a dollar a day. He also owns the most expensive house in Malibu.
He has gone with the name “El Jefe gentleman of the great island of Bioko, Annobón and Río Muni, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo”. He has at times declared that he is a god, and at other times merely that he is “a good catholic in permanent contact with the Almighty [who] can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell”. It was presumably the latter line he stuck to during his two audiences with the two most recent Popes. He is also chair of the African Union.
In 2004 there was a coup attempt against him. The hair brained scheme was cooked up by Simon Mann, a former SAS commando and minor aristocrat (his father was Captain of the England Cricket team back in the day when the captain had to be a gentleman). He raised money from Jeffery Archer, some Lebanese and Spanish businessmen, Tory Spin Doctor (and advisor to the Iraqi government) Tim Bell and, famously, Mark Thatcher. With Thatcher’s help, Mann hired some South African mercenaries but the plot went no further and all the conspirators were arrested. Thatcher received a suspended sentence, but Mann and some of the other conspirators weren’t so lucky – they were extradited to Equatorial Guinea and sentenced to 34 years in Black Beach. Mann was released on health grounds after 5.
Who’s in charge?: Obiang and his PDGE. At the last presidential election he won 97% of the vote and at the past parliamentary election the PDGE won 99 of the seats. The main tension in the PDGE is allegedly between Obiang’s son Teodorín and other, more senior, members of the PDGE. This battle for control is most obvious in the debate over oil rights – new found oil is increasing the wealth of the nation considerably but, alas, not evenly.
The only party willing to stand against them is the socialist Convergence for Social Democracy. They are a legal party but their members risk frequent detention and torture. As the mathematicians amongst you will have deduced they gained 3% of the presidential vote and 1 legislative seat.
All the other political parties are boycotting elections. Some of the larger ones are: the still banned Movement for the Self-Determination of Bioko Island, the centre-right Progress Party (in self-imposed exile in Spain), the Progressive Democratic Alliance (who hold about the only elected administrative post not in PDGE hands – that of the mayor of the oil town of Malabo), and the liberal National Democratic Union (also in self imposed exile).
What does it look like?: The islands are dry winter and wet in summer whilst in the mainland the reverse is true. Otherwise the landscape is very similar in the two sections. In the mainland there is a flat coastal plane which rises up through a succession of valleys into the Crystal Mountains. On the islands, volcanoes provide a similar relief. All are largely covered by tropical rainforest. The unnavigable Benito river splits mainland Equatorial Guinea in half. You can see the Island of Bioko from northernmost Cameroon if you look due south:
What are the issues?: With 70% of the population earning under a dollar a day, severe persecution of ethnic minorities, and severe human rights abuses is is clear what the issues should be. However so far the oil boom has only brought incredible wealth for a few – and whilst per-capita GDP has shot up to 28th in the world most Equatoguineans have very little to show for it. That said the Obiang government hasn’t been entirely idle. Anti-malaria campaigns have been very effective and literacy, which Macías had pushed down to 27%, is back up to 83%.
With Ibero-Equatoguinean relations at a low ebb (Obiang believes the Spanish were behind the 2004 coup attempts) the government has been casting around internationally for new friends. They have used their historic French links to become the only non-Francophone member of the Central African Franc exchange system, and as previously mentioned, have used their historic Portuguese link to become (for the moment) the only non-Lusophone member of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries. They have also used their oil to buy influence in the USA: Obama granting Obiang an audience and Condoleezza Rice calling him a “great friend”.
A good source of impartial information is: The state media is hugely biased and most of the private media is owned by Obiang’s son. Overseas sources like Think Africa Press are your best bet.
A good book is: Because so few people know much about Equatorial Guinea, and much of what is known is that it is a basket case, it works quite well as an empty signifier in fiction and so features quite a lot. Occasionally the name (but virtually nothing else) is changed, thus in Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs Of War (also a Christopher Walken film) it is called Zangaro and in Yes Minister it is called Buranda (actually a suburb of Brisbane). It goes by its real name in The Illuminatus Trilogy and in (the doctor, aquanaut and sci-fi writer, not the politician) Robin Cook’s Chromosome 6. The latter actually says quite a lot about the real country, as does the otherwise trashy Limit: Roman
As for actual books about the actual nation there is not much: one low-brow book about the Thatcher coup, one travel journal, a guide to recent romantic literature from the country, and a dry and expensive corporate report. That seems to be it.
When are the next elections?: Elections are due in 2012 for the legislative, 2016 for President.