Choosing Our Oil Over Their Democracy: Elections as Farce in Equatorial Guinea

An Equatorial Guinean friend sends me a message on Facebook. Abrazo. A hug. He's upset, because to walk to work he's had to pass through Malabo's Plaza de la Mujer, which is currently occupied by a large contingent of riot police and K-9 units, not unlike the Ukrainian mercenaries that searched my luggage on the tarmac of the Bata airport in 2011, on a short domestic flight from Equatorial Guinea's island capital Malabo.

This Sunday, May 26, 2013, was the latest Parliamentary Election under President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, now the longest serving African head of state, following the 2011 overthrow of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. Obiang, who overthrew his despotic uncle Francisco Macías in late 1979, has since held five presidential elections, though he ran as the only candidate in the first three and de facto sole candidate in the last two, when most opposition parties called for boycotts. Rightfully so -- in 2002 one Guinean precinct registered 103 percent of the vote in Obiang's favor. Tutu Alicante, Executive Director of the nonprofit EG Justice, which presses for human rights and the rule of law in Equatorial Guinea, said, "The sad truth is that Equatoguineans have never experienced a free and fair election."

When I was in Malabo, the Guineans I asked squirmed when asked about voting. Most didn't bother. What's the point? asked my twenty-something friend Francisco. Obiang is going to win, and voting against him is like volunteering for government harrasment, or worse.

Last week a group of nine peaceful protestors were detained, arrested, and allegedly tortured. UN reports have long confirmed systematic torture in the Guinean prison system. In 2008 UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak reported "beatings to the soles of feet and buttocks with batons, solid rubberized cables and wooden bars; electric shocks with starter cables attached to different parts of the body with alligator clips; various forms of suspension with hands and feet tied together for prolonged periods and beating victims while they swing back-and-forth," all corroborated by expert medical analysis. It's likely that President Obiang was once involved firsthand in the torture of political prisoners, as head of the country's notorious Black Beach Prison under his uncle's infamously brutal regime, though these days he's more likely to be spotted smiling for photos with President Obama.

Since the mid-1990s Equatorial Guinea has emerged as one of the continent's largest oil producers, skyrocketing to its current position as the most wealthy per capita country in Africa, with a 2012 GNI of just over $25,000. Despite those statistics, World Bank estimates that some 78% of Guineans live beneath the national poverty line, and most on less that $1 a day. Despite the 2004 downfall of Obiang's preferred US finance institution, Riggs Bank, which the US Senate confirmed accepted payment of $300M from ExxonMobil and Amerada Hess into accounts directly controlled by the president and his family, Forbes has recently estimated that he retains some $700M of the money earned from his country's oil wealth in American banks.

The United States' relationship with Equatorial Guinea presents a thin veneer of ethical respectability. In 2011 the Department of Justice went to court to seize some $70M of assets from President Obiang's son Teodorín, who formerly served as the country's Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, despite splitting most of his time between Paris and his $30M Malibu mansion, complete with a three-hole golf course. The department's revised complaint states that Obiang Jr. spent $315M on properties and luxury goods from 2004 to 2011, including two Bugatti Veyron, with starting price tags of $1.7M each. Despite these unresolved disputes, at the end of the day Equatorial Guinea's vast oil supplies prove more important to the their relationship with the United States than its corruption, human rights record, or sham democracy.

Beyond the U.S. government's strategic passivity in addressing injustice in Equatorial Guinea, several American institutions are more actively involved in Sunday's election. Exiled Guinean cartoonist Jamón y Queso believes the country has the United States' tacit approval, as in his illustration of Obiang draped in the American flag, which appears above. Though it has not been announced publicly, Bruce McColm's Institute for Democratic Strategies is presently in Equatorial Guinea, where it is expected that they will praise the fairness of the parliamentary election, validifying the government's claim to democracy to casual observers abroad. McColm has previously partnered with President Obiang in several business ventures and presented him favorably to Riggs Bank executives. Between 2000 and 2002 his institute was paid $525,000 by the government of Equatorial Guinea for its election monitoring services. Since 2010, Equatorial Guinea has employed Washington D.C.-based Qorvis Communications to manage the country's public image PR abroad, paying the agency, which also represents Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, a $60,000 monthly retainer.

Contemporary relations with Equatorial Guinea epitomize the United States' purely self-interested approach to international relations, neatly summarized in President Roosevelt's likely apocryphal quote, which applies as much to Obiang as it ever did Somoza, Trujillo, or any other contemporary dictator: "[He] may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch." Acknowledging Sunday's elections as anything besides the sham that they are reveals the declining quality of our own democracy, where profit trumps person and values bottleneck at the open wallet. When we forget that our economic decisions affect the quality of life -- and, in this case, even the state of life -- of others, I wonder whether we believe as much in the idea of democracy as we do in our own right to what we want, no matter the rights of others. Until we open our eyes to the present state of Equatorial Guinea, and to our implicit support of its current government, we only demonstrate the democratic luxury of not giving a shit.

Please be careful, I tell my Guinean friend on Facebook before his connection goes out. I'd like to console him that the world is watching, but I don't believe it myself.

Follow the progress of Equatorial Guinean democracy through Equatorial Guinea Justice, a nonprofit that presses for human rights and the rule of law in Equatorial Guinea.