August 8, 2014

The US-Africa Summit wrapped up yesterday, but that wasn’t the end of the fanfare for one of its most controversial participants.

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, the world’s longest serving non-royal head of state, was honored at an invitation-only dinner last night hosted by the Corporate Council on Africa.

The council, whose members pay between $5,000 and $25,000 for the benefits of “access, connections and insight,” is co-sponsoring an “Equatorial Guinea Economic Forum” today. 

The forum agenda, designed to entice more American investment, skips over issues of government mismanagement and high-level abuse of power in Equatorial Guinea.

A morning session on the “health system in Equatorial Guinea” is likely to skip over the inconvenient fact that the Obiang government manifestly fails to fulfill its international social and economic rights obligations to meet the basic needs of its citizens.

Life expectancy in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, which has a per-capita income equivalent to Portugal’s, is 53, compared with 80 in Portugal and 63 in neighboring Gabon, according to World Bank statistics from 2012. Despite tremendous resources, Equatorial Guinea has very low vaccination rates, including the worst polio vaccination rate in the world, according to the World Health Organization.

Even more out of touch with reality is an afternoon session that labels Equatorial Guinea as “a promising and secure business environment.”

Tell that to Roberto Berardi, the Italian businessman who was the business partner of President Obiang’s oldest son, “Teodorín.” While forum attendees enjoy the posh amenities of the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, DC, Bernardi sits nearly 6,000 miles away in Equatorial Guinea in a cramped and filthy prison cell where he’s spent most of the last 18 months, much of it in solitary confinement. He has been tortured.

Teodorin the country’s second vice-president, is the subject of corruption and money-laundering investigations in the US and France. Berardi was arrested after he questioned the son about news that the US investigation was based in part on allegations that Teodorín misused a bank account in the name of a construction firm they jointly owned to make lavish purchases with dirty money. One wire transfer, for $872,112, paid for the purchase at auction of Michael Jackson memorabilia, including “a white, crystal-covered ‘Bad Tour’ glove.”

Teodorín, who has a track record of filing charges against business partners who know too much, is now negotiating a settlement with the US Department of Justice.

This week several international organizations warned that he and his father  “have repeatedly demonstrated disrespect for judicial process in the United States and in their own country.” In a letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder, they advise that “great care and some degree of skepticism” is needed when dealing with Teodorín and the Obiang government.

The same is true of investors. The Obiang government has spent millions on lobbyists and public relations firms to present a shiny image. But anyone who looks into the situation will find that dealing with the Obiang family has proved to be a risky enterprise.

A high-powered former “reform advisor” to the Obiang government, Lanny Davis, successfully sued his client, who he claimed stiffed him on more than $150,000 in lobbying expenses.

President Obiang frequently makes promises he does not keep. In April, he promised to promptly release Berardi in a “humanitarian” gesture.

And ever since Equatorial Guinea was expelled from an international transparency initiative on oil, gas and mining payments in 2010, he has pledged to take the steps needed to qualify for membership. His government is likely to repeat that claim to potential American investors at the forum today.

A key requirement of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative is that government openly engage with activists, without intimidation or reprisal, and guarantee an “enabling environment” for their full participation.

But the Obiang government has made no progress to address its broken promise to engage with activists freely in debate on the management of the country’s natural resource wealth, a central failing of its prior membership bid. Instead, the government continues to harass activists and impose severe restrictions on free speech.

I would have liked to put these issues to the government ministers who are pitching company representatives at today’s event, but Human Rights Watch did not receive a response to our request for meetings.

Before they fall for the claim that today’s forum demonstrates “the government’s commitment to fostering an enabling environment for foreign investment,” investors should check out the Department of Justice’s description of the business climate in Equatorial Guinea. It alleges extortion of timber and construction companies, fraudulently inflated public construction contracts that deliberately bilked the government by charging as much as five times the correct price, massive kickbacks, and the funneling of public money into private bank accounts.

Separately, the Department of Justice is looking into possible bribery of Equatorial Guinea officials by a Swiss oil and gas company. The company itself publicly states it uncovered evidence of payments totaling $18.8 million that may have gone directly or indirectly to government officials in the country.

For all its talk, the Obiang government doesn’t actually enable civic participation or promote good business practices. Enabling high-level corruption and human rights abuses however – now that is something else.

Lisa Misol is a senior business and human rights research at Human Rights Watch.