Obiang Should Tackle Corruption, Poverty, and Repression in Oil-Rich Equatorial Guinea
President Obiang has repeatedly committed himself to good governance and respect for human rights, and this meeting is an important opportunity for a direct and candid discussion of those commitments. We hope that the president’s visit will lead to decisive steps toward reform.
(Washington) – The president of Equatorial Guinea should take concrete steps to respect human rights, address corruption, and improve transparency, Global Witness, Human Rights Watch, Open Society Foundations, and Oxfam America said today. On June 15, the four groups will meet with President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in Washington, DC, to press for meaningful reforms.
Corruption, poverty, and a very poor human rights record are all hallmarks of today’s Equatorial Guinea.Vast oil revenues fund lavish lifestyles for the small elite surrounding the president, while most of the country’s people are denied access to basic economic and social rights, and so are trapped in poverty. President Obiang exercises extensive control over all branches of government. Civil society groups are not permitted to operate freely and independently, and freedom of speech and the press are routinely curtailed.
“President Obiang has repeatedly committed himself to good governance and respect for human rights, and this meeting is an important opportunity for a direct and candid discussion of those commitments,” said Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. “We hope that the president’s visit will lead to decisive steps toward reform.”
There have been numerous foreign investigations into high-level corruption tied to Equatorial Guinea’s natural resource wealth. This week, the US Department of Justice amended its October 2011 legal filing seeking to seize assets of Obiang’s eldest son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, known as Teodorín, alleging that he had obtained hundreds of millions of dollars through corruption. Other corruption and money-laundering investigations implicating Teodorín or other officials are ongoing in France and Spain.
“As details of these investigations unfold, the cloud of corruption surrounding the government gets thicker,” said Corinna Gilfillan, head of Global Witness’s US office. “President Obiang should address these allegations publicly and explain how the government plans to investigate them – and he should let legal proceedings take their course without interference.”
In a high-profile speech at the Cape Town Global Forum in June 2010, Obiang pledged greater transparency, social development, legal reform, and respect for fundamental freedoms. In 2011, he delivered speeches to the United Nations General Assembly and, as the chairman at that time of the African Union, praised democracy and human rights principles. In March 2010, his government agreed to carry out dozens of recommendations issued during the UN Human Rights Council’s review of Equatorial Guinea’s human rights performance.
But Obiang’s government has made very limited progress to realizing these commitments. Constitutional changes approved in November 2011, for example, place term limits on the presidency, but otherwise serve to entrench and expand Obiang’s unchecked powers. They allow him to name an undisclosed number of members of a newly created Senate and to appoint or approve the heads of “independent” institutions ostensibly charged with improving government accountability. In May, Obiang promoted his son Teodorín to a new post – second vice president – which is not specified in the country’s recently revised constitution.
The groups said they would press Obiang to take concrete steps to increase public transparency, combat corruption, prioritize anti-poverty spending, cease political repression, enact judicial reforms, and permit domestic and foreign civil society activists and journalists to operate freely. More specifically, they called for President Obiang’s government to:
- Greatly enhance fiscal transparency and accountability, including by publishing all government revenues, budgets, and spending; conducting and publishing annual audits of all government accounts, including those held abroad; and enforcing a requirement that public officials declare their assets.
- Take steps to combat official corruption and account for the use of public funds by disclosing natural resource revenues, and remove obstacles to civil society participation before seeking to rejoin the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international effort to promote more openness about oil, gas and mining profits.
- Greatly boost spending for poverty alleviation, primary education, and basic health care.
- Uphold political freedoms by respecting the right of opposition members to travel freely, to hold meetings, to express their views, and to have access to the media without discrimination. The government should also establish an independent electoral body to ensure that all electoral processes are free, fair, and accountable.
- Undertake a comprehensive reform to ensure judicial independence and otherwise bring the judicial system into compliance with the international human rights instruments Equatorial Guinea has signed.
- Cease harassment of and reprisals against domestic critics and allow them to operate freely and independently and to carry on their professions.
- Permit and clearly authorize foreign nongovernmental organizations, journalists, and UN human rights experts to enter Equatorial Guinea, travel freely, meet with a range of official and private persons, and carry out independent work without hindrance or risk of retaliation against those who share information.
“The government receives billions of dollars in undisclosed oil revenue. Progress on accountability and pro-poor government spending must include full transparency over government revenues and expenditures. Citizens and journalists must have the freedom to monitor the use of oil wealth and watchdog groups must be allowed to freely operate,” said Ian Gary, senior policy manager for extractive industries at Oxfam America.
The off-the-record meeting in Washington, DC, co-organized by the US State Department and the Woodrow Wilson Center, will be Obiang’s first meeting with these civil society groups. The groups noted the need for broader engagement with civil society organizations, both domestic and foreign. For example, EG Justice, a prominent organization based in Washington, DC, which is the only group in the world solely dedicated to working on human rights and social justice in the country, was not invited. Civil society is so curtailed inside Equatorial Guinea that the country does not have a single registered human rights group.
“We hope that this meeting is a sign that the president and the government will regularly engage with civil society instead of attacking them,” Sarah Pray, senior policy analyst for the Open Society Foundations said. “It will be crucial for a wider range of groups to have similar opportunities for open engagement and for civil society to be able to operate freely within the country.”
Background on Equatorial Guinea
Obiang has been the head of state in Equatorial Guinea since taking power in a 1979 coup and is currently the world’s longest serving head of state. Oil was discovered in the West African country of some 680,000 people in the mid-1990s. It is now the fourth largest oil-producer in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Obiang government has increased social spending levels somewhat, but continues to prioritize public investments in projects that have little benefit for the poor, such as multiple presidential palaces and a US$830 million resort complex used to host the June 2011 AU summit outside Malabo, the nation’s capital. Maternal and child mortality have declined, thanks in part to a malaria prevention program largely funded by foreign oil companies, but the rates remain high. Nearly one in every eight child dies before his or her fifth birthday, according to 2010 UN and World Bank statistics.
In its amended complaint dated June 11, 2012, the US Justice Department alleges that Obiang’s son Teodorín extorted funds from timber and construction companies through fictitious companies, fraudulently inflated public construction contracts by as much as 500 percent, and funneled public money into a private bank account under his control while he served as the Minister of Agriculture and Forestry. The complaint details how Teodorín spent more than US$300 million from 2000 to 2011 on such high-ticket purchases as an US$80 million mansion in Paris, US$45 million in art by Renoir and other master painters, a US$30 million mansion in Malibu, California, a US$15 million property in Sao Paolo, properties worth a combined US$8 million in Cape Town, a US$38.5 million Gulfstream jet, and more than US$2.7 million of Michael Jackson memorabilia, allegedly using funds obtained through corruption.
The Obama administration has set up a specific “anti-kleptocracy” unit to investigate allegations of high-level foreign corruptions. Under a 2004 proclamation signed by President George W. Bush, which launched the US government’s anti-kleptocracy initiative, current and former public officials and others involved in or benefiting from corruption are to be banned from entering the US.
A French investigation has thus far led to the seizure of large quantities of high-end items purchased with suspect funds and a pending international arrest warrant against Teodorín.
Obiang and his government have vociferously defended Teodorín, claiming he amassed his wealth through legitimate business ventures. Through his lawyers, Teodorín has denied all corruption allegations in France and the United States.
Shortly after an initial French police seizure of 11 of Teodorín’s luxury sports cars, in September 2011, Obiang named his son to be Equatorial Guinea’s deputy permanent delegate to the Paris-based United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in an apparent effort to grant him diplomatic immunity from prosecution.
A Court of Auditors was created under Equatorial Guinea’s new constitution, tasked with reviewing government expenditures and investigating suspected corruption, but its head is to be directly named by the president.
Harassment of Dissenting Voices
Dr. Wenceslao Mansogo Alo, a prominent human rights defender and medical doctor, was released on June 6 after nearly four months in prison but remains subject to court-ordered fines, the suspension of his medical license, and the closure of his private medical clinic. Ponciano Mbomio Nvó, one of Dr. Mansogo’s lawyers, was suspended from legal practice in April 2012 for two years for criticizing the government in closing arguments in Mansogo’s trial.
Alfredo Okenve Ndo, an activist who works to promote transparency and responsive governance has also experienced ongoing harassment. Okenve was removed from two posts at the National University after critiquing the government’s transparency record at a May 2010 event in Washington, DC. A private company that wanted to hire Okenve withdrew the job offer under government pressure.
Previously, the government has accused international civil society organizations that have been critical of its record of wanting “to dirty the image” of Equatorial Guinea, of holding an “irresponsible and openly unfair and racist attitude,” of “blackmail,” and of “defamation, prejudice, slander, and misinformation.”
Obiang has pursued his critics in court. On September 30, 2011, a French court ruled against Obiang in a libel suit he brought against CCFD-Terre Solidaire, a French nongovernmental organization, over a report the group published that detailed the ill-gotten gains of various leaders, including Obiang.
Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI)
Equatorial Guinea was expelled from the EITI in April 2010 for failing to meet its basic requirements. The Obiang government has not reapplied nor has it made progress to address the limits on civil society participation that marred its earlier candidacy.
Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Act (Wall Street and Consumer Protection Act) requires all oil, gas and mining companies to publicly disclose their resource revenue payments to governments for each project they operate. The European Union is considering similar rules.