Dictator of the Month: Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea

Monday, July 25, 2011
Teodoro Obiang with Barack Obama (photo: Lawrence Jackson, White House)
One of the most overlooked nations in the world, Equatorial Guinea popped onto the international scene after large reserves of oil were discovered there in 1995. Between 1968 and 1979, the nation was controlled by a dictator, Francisco Macías Nguema, whose brutality in the post-Hitler era has been matched only by Pol Pot of Cambodia. Macías was finally overthrown, executed and replaced…by his nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who has ruled Equatorial Guinea for the past 32 years. Although not insane like his uncle, Obiang has managed to loot his nation’s treasury. He has avoided condemnation in the United States by hiring public relations firms and lobbyists, a tactic that has earned him smiling photos with such luminaries as Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama. In my book Tyrants: The World's 20 Worst Living Dictators, I included a chapter about Obiang. Those not interested in history can scroll down to the heading “THE UNCLE.”
THE NATION—Equatorial Guinea is a remote West African nation with a population of only 675,000. Despite its small size, it consists of two barely related halves that were joined politically by colonial powers. One part, Río Muni, is on the mainland of Africa. The other half is the island of Bioko (formerly Fernando Po) and several smaller islands. Bioko is actually closer physically to Cameroon than it is to the rest of Equatorial Guinea. The people of Río Muni are 80% Fang, while those of Bioko are Bubi and the Creole descendants of immigrants and liberated slaves, known as Fernandinos. The population is 80% Roman Catholic. 
HISTORY—Portuguese sailors first stumbled upon Bioko in the 15th century, but did not pay serious attention to Río Muni until the 20th century. In 1787, Portugal ceded the rights to the region, and to its people as potential slaves, to Spain in exchange for claims in Brazil. Spanish settlers were quickly driven away by yellow fever. In 1827 the Spanish leased Bioko to the British, who used the island as a base to fight the slave trade. Spain reoccupied the island in 1844 and, ten years later, began establishing cocoa plantations. The local people, who were forced to give up their land, showed no inclination to work on the plantations, so the Spanish landowners brought in slaves and contract workers, first from Liberia and then from Nigeria. Beginning in 1879, Spain also used Bioko as a penal colony for Cuban prisoners it considered too dangerous to hold in Cuba. After the Spanish-American War of 1898, Spain named the territory Spanish Guinea and set the basic borders that are still used today.  In practice, the Spanish showed so little interest in the area that, between 1865 and 1910, Spanish Guinea went through sixty-five governors, averaging a change every eight or nine months. It was not until 1939 that Spain began aggressively exploiting Río Muni, using it as a source of timber.
As the age of colonialism drew to a close, Spanish Guinea was renamed Equatorial Guinea in 1963 and became “self-governing.” Bonifacio Ondo Edu, a mainland Fang, was chosen president of a transitional Executive Council and a constitution was enacted in 1967. The fact that the constitution was inspired by that of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s should have served as a warning of the horrific nightmare into which the country was about to be plunged.
At the time of independence in 1968, cocoa accounted for 75% of the gross domestic product and 90% of it was grown on Bioko. A majority of the island’s population, wary of the Fang leadership on the mainland, voted against the proposed constitution. Their slogan, “Independence yes, but without Río Muni,” was ignored by Spain. The constitution was approved anyway. The election to decide Equatorial Guinea’s first president was contested by three candidates. Ondu Edu, who, as transitional president had already developed a reputation for corruption and arrogance, received 37% of the vote. Atanasio Ndong Miyone, the founder of Equatorial Guinea’s original nationalist party, picked up 21% of the vote, while Francisco Macías Nguema, who promised a return to “traditional Fang values,” won 42% of the vote. Ondu Edu refused to join forces with Ndong Miyone, who then threw his support to Macías Nguema, thus giving him the presidency.
Most observers overlooked an ominous sign: Macías lost in his own district, which he had ruled for the past five years.  Macías took office upon the declaration of Equatorial Guinea’s independence in October 1968, but almost immediately a fact became apparent that should have been clear before the election: Francisco Macías Nguema was severely deranged. Over the next eleven years he would rule with a psychotic brutality that, since the days of Adolf Hitler, has been matched only by Pol Pot of Cambodia.
THE UNCLE—Francisco Macías Nguema was born January 1, 1924, in Oyen in the Woleu Nteu province of Gabon, and was raised in the village of Mongomo in what later became Equatorial Guinea. His father was a well-known Fang sorcerer and Macías would later use this pedigree to his advantage in his political career. He was not an academic star and failed the basic civil service examination three times before passing on the fourth try. After working as a clerk, he gained a petty position in the forestry department, took four years off to work on his coffee plantation and then, in 1951, he gained a post as an assistant translator in the Racial Court of Mongomo. 
Whatever his intellectual deficiencies, Macías knew how to take advantage of his situation. He was adept at extracting bribes and kickbacks, exploiting the peasants who needed help, while crassly ingratiating himself to the Spaniards who were his superiors. He was appointed mayor of Mongomo in 1963 and, the following year, became minister of public works for Ondu Edu’s transitional government. It was in this post that Macías attracted the attention of a Spanish lawyer and entrepreneur named Antonio García Trevijano, who saw Macías as the perfect front man for his own economic ambitions. After the election of October 1968, Ondu Edu fled to Gabon, but was forced back. Macías had him arrested. While in custody, Ondu Edu was tortured, mutilated, blinded, left without medical attention for a week and then, in January 1969, lynched in prison. His wife was also murdered. 
On February 25, Macías was traveling through the town of Bata, when he spotted Spanish flags flying over Spanish buildings. All of his suppressed rage over the condescending way the Spanish colonialists had treated him before independence boiled over and he ordered the Spanish consul general to pull down the flags. The consul general refused, so Macías sent bands of “Macías Youth” to attack expatriates. By March, all but a few hundred Spaniards had fled the country, leaving the management of the nation crippled.
Macías took out his wrath on the educated class. He closed all libraries, prohibited the use of the word “intellectual,” and once fined his minister of education, Grange Molax, for using the word “intellectual” at a cabinet meeting.   When the government director of statistics published economic estimates that were lower than expected, Macías had him dismembered. A militant atheist, he ordered his own photo to hang by the altar in every church and he forced all priests to publicly preach that “God created Equatorial Guinea thanks to Papa Macías,” and that “Without Macías Equatorial Guinea would not exist.” Not satisfied with imposing these humiliations, Macías eventually banned all religious meetings and funerals and forbade the use of Christian names. In 1972, he made the National Assembly name him “Grand Master of Education, Science and Culture” as well as “President for Life.”  
Macías ultimately oversaw the murder of ten of the twelve members of his original cabinet and, in 1975, he had his vice president, Bosio Dieo, killed. His strategy of liquidating potential rivals extended beyond the political realm.  Macías, who was sterile (fortunately), ordered the execution of all of the former lovers of his third wife, as well as the killing of the husbands of women he desired.
Macías’ most notorious atrocity took place in 1975 when he gathered together 150 political opponents in Malabo Stadium and ordered all of them killed in a mass execution while loudspeakers played the Mary Hopkins song “Those were the Days, My Friend.”
But for all of his horrible acts, Macías’ worst crime was his utter destruction of his nation’s economy. By 1973, one-quarter of the citizens of Equatorial Guinea had fled the country, including everyone with any economic or political expertise, and most important posts had been given to members of his family. When ninety-five Nigerian contract workers demanded payment of their wages, Macías had them murdered. Finally, his treatment of foreign workers became so bad that the government of Nigeria evacuated 25,000 of its citizens who were still in the country.   Macías forced Bubi on Bioko Island to work on the cocoa plantations, but their enthusiasm was not great and the cocoa industry almost ground to a halt. When he took office, Equatorial Guinea was producing 38,000 tons of cocoa a year; after ten years of Macías’ rule, the annual harvest was down to 3,000 tons. The coffee crop was also diminished to one-tenth of what it had been.
By 1979, Francisco Macías had been responsible for the murder of at least 20,000 of his own citizens. Another 100,000, almost a third of the population, had gone into exile. It is thought that this marked the greatest refugee exodus by percentage of any country in modern history.
By this time, Macías, who had twice traveled to Spain for treatment of a brain tumor, was holed up in his village of Mongomo, where the troops protecting him were led by officers from Cuba and North Korea. In other parts of the country, security service officers had gone so long without being paid that a delegation of six officers traveled to Mongomo to try to collect the wages. This was necessary because Macías kept the national treasury in his home, with much of it stuffed in suitcases. Macías’ bodyguards killed all six officers. It was this outrage that would finally lead to Macías’ fall. One of the six officers was the younger brother of Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Macías’ minister of defense, who was also Macías’ nephew. Obiang gathered together relatives with military training and, with the support of the Spanish government and military aid from Morocco and Gabon, attacked Macias’ forces. 
Macías was deposed on August 3, 1979, captured on August 18, put on trial September 24, and executed by firing squad on September 29. Members of the national army refused to take part in the execution because they were convinced that if they did so, Macías would return after death in the form of a tiger and hunt them down. In the end, troops from Morocco had to perform the deed. Two weeks later, Obiang declared himself president. Most of the few foreigners who followed events in Equatorial Guinea were relieved by the change of regime—but Equatoguineans knew better. At Macías’ trials, his crimes were related in detail—except those committed after 1974, because Obiang was implicated in many of those that took place after that date.
THE MAN—Like his uncle, Francisco Macías, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo was born (in 1942) in the district of Mongomo by the Gabonese border. And, like his uncle, he studied at the Spanish Military Academy in Zaragoza, where he and other elite Equatoguinean youth were sent, in the words of one observer, “in an effort to temper dissatisfaction in the African colony.” 
When his uncle was elected president in 1968, the twenty-six-year-old Obiang was appointed governor of Bioko and director of the infamous Black Beach Prison. He later became commander of the National Guard before taking over as secretary-general of the Ministry of Defense. In 1973, Obiang arrested and expelled Marceau Louis of the United Nations Development Program for refusing to turn over documents relating to the anti-Macías movement. On January 8, 1976, he ordered an attack on the Nigerian consulate that led to eleven deaths, and later that year he personally arrested more than 100 civil servants who had signed a petition of protest. Several of the unfortunate protestors were killed in prison.
IN POWER—After executing his uncle and seizing power in 1979, Obiang quickly dispelled any illusions that anyone might have had that he would open Equatorial Guinea to freedom and democracy. He declared an amnesty for refugees, which sent the message that being a refugee was a criminal offense. When some hopeful refugees returned, many of them were arrested and beaten. 
Somewhat less bloodthirsty than his uncle, Obiang has nonetheless proved himself a more efficient tyrant. In the words of Gustav Gallon, of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, under Obiang torture is “a normal means of investigation.” To be on the safe side, Obiang made sure that his presidential guard was composed not of citizens of Equatorial Guinea, but of several hundred soldiers from Morocco. In 1991, Obiang wrote a new constitution that prohibited the impeachment of the head of state.
Justice under Obiang was symbolized by a 1986 incident in which thirty people were arrested for allegedly trying to overthrow the government. Obiang personally presided over the military tribunal that heard the case of legislator Eugenio Abeso Mondu, who was charged with heading the conspiracy. On the last day of the trial, Abeso Mondu was convicted and immediately executed by firing squad.
In an attempt to revive his nation’s ruined economy, Obiang offered to return the cocoa plantations, which had been nationalized by Macías, to their original Spanish owners. However, there were few takers. Indeed, relations between Equatorial Guinea and Spain began to sour, and Obiang looked to France for help. In 1982 Equatorial Guinea became the only non-Francophone member of the Franc Zone. When Spain granted asylum to Equatoguinean opposition leader Severo Moto Nsa in 1997, Obiang, in a bizarre fit of pique, changed the national language of Equatorial Guinea from Spanish to French.
In July 2003, state radio announced that Obiang “is in permanent contact with The Almighty” and that he “can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to Hell.” Despite his alleged invincibility, Obiang, like many dictators, has tried to satisfy the concerns of foreign investors and governments by staging elections. However, in true dictator fashion, he has gone to great lengths to ensure his own victory. Six months before the election of December 15, 2002, Obiang had sixty-eight opposition leaders arrested and used torture to extract “confessions” from them, after which they were all sentenced to from six to twenty years in prison. Obiang won 97.1% of the vote. In the nation’s most recent election, in November 2009, his slice of the vote slipped to a mere 95.4%.
OIL—Good fortune struck Equatorial Guinea in 1995—sort of—when large deposits of oil were discovered. Drilling began in 1996 and over the next three years the gross domestic product of Equatorial Guinea tripled. By 2003, oil represented 80% of the GDP as oil companies, particularly those from the United States, poured $5 billion into the country. Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, Texaco, Amerada Hess and Marathon Oil turned Equatorial Guinea into the third-largest oil-producing nation in Africa. 
Under President Bill Clinton, the United States had protested Obiang’s abuse of human rights by closing the U.S. embassy in Equatorial Guinea in 1995. Six years later, the oil-friendly administration of George W. Bush, quietly reopened the embassy. They also allowed the quasi-governmental U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) to fund a $450 million methanol plant and gave permission to a private firm, Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI) of Alexandria, Virginia, to develop a coast guard to protect the oil fields in Equatorial Guinea. 
With the per capita annual income skyrocketing to $4,472, life for the average Equatoguineans should have improved dramatically, but, with Teodoro Obiang in power, such was not the case. In fact, 60% of the nation’s citizens continued to live on less than $1 a day, while the huge bulk of the oil income went straight to Obiang, who declared that “there is no poverty in Guinea.” Rather, “The people are used to living in a different way.” The nation has little public transportation, no newspapers, and only 1% of government spending goes to health care. In addition, in 2001, it was estimated that only 43% of Equatoguineans had access to safe drinking water. On the other hand, Obiang deposited almost half a billion dollars into an account in the Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C. In a radio speech in 2003, he explained to the Equatoguinean citizenry that he felt compelled to assume full control over the national treasury in order to prevent civil servants from being tempted to engage in corrupt practices.
ALL IN THE FAMILY—Like his uncle before him, Teodoro Obiang has concentrated power and wealth within his own family. In 2004 seven of the nation’s nine generals were his relatives and the other two were from his tribe. His brother-in-law, Teodoro Biyogo Nsue, served as ambassador to the United Nations before taking charge of family interests in the United States, which is to say, the oil revenue of Equatorial Guinea. Obiang’s brother, Armengol Ondo Nguema, served as the Director General of National Security. According to the U.S. State Department, Ondo Nguema ordered security forces to urinate on prisoners, slice off their ears, and cover them with oil to attract stinging ants. Ondo Nguema bought a house in Virginia, while Obiang himself bought two in Maryland. 
One of Obiang’s sons, Gabriel Mbega Obiang Lima, is the Minister of Mining, Industries and Energy, but it is another son, Teodorin, who has proved to be the most colorful member of the family. Teodorin is the Minister of Water and Forests, Fishing and Environment. He also owns the only private radio station in Equatorial Guinea and gained notoriety by becoming the first Equatoguinean to own a Rolls-Royce. Teodorin is attracted by the world of entertainment. In March 2001, he purchased a $5.8 million estate in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, before moving on to a $35 million estate in Malibu. Settling into the Hollywood scene, he started his own rap music company, TNO Entertainment. The first artist he signed, Won-G, introduced his first music video with a dedication to Teodorin. The name of the song? “Nothing’s Wrong.”   
-David Wallechinsky


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