As foreign dignitaries arrive in Equatorial Guinea for the African Union summit that opens today, they return to the lavish venue built outside the capital, Malabo, for the 2011 AU summit, at a cost of $830 million. Complete with beach-front villas and an 18-hole golf course, it may give the visitors the impression of a country with money to burn.
The truth is, ordinary people in Equatorial Guinea have dire needs in terms of basic rights, such as health, education and sustenance. Under Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who has ruled harshly for nearly 35 years, the country has stayed poor while the ruling elite has grown richer. With a per-capita income similar to Saudi Arabia’s and higher than Portugal’s, according to the UN's 2013 Human Development Report, it clearly has funds available.
The government’s massive oil wealth should be invested in key services to fulfill its human rights commitments. Instead, the government consistently prioritizes spending for prestige projects, including hosting international events, and a massive construction boom. The International Monetary Fund expressed concern that, amid this largess, the government only dedicated 3 percent of capital spending to health and education combined in 2011.
The results are predictable. Despite its wealth as one of the largest oil-producers in sub-Saharan Africa and its small population, Equatorial Guinea has the worst polio vaccination rates in the world, 39 percent, according to the World Health Organization. Earlier this year, three cases of polio were confirmed there, prompting a belated vaccination campaign.
The government's own research in 2012 found that about half the population lacks access to clean water or basic sanitation. Childhood malnutrition, as seen in the percentage of children whose growth is stunted, stands at 35 percent, according to UNICEF.
The government’s statistics are notoriously unreliable. It seemingly can't be bothered to reliably track basic indicators. International organizations frequently have to make their estimates based on computer models because they only have limited information. There can be no doubt, however, that much of the country's population is needlessly suffering.
The attendees at the AU Summit should think about the poor of Equatorial Guinea as they discuss the theme of "food security" from the luxe facilities where they gather. If they have time, perhaps they can arrange to visit an even more extensive, and expensive, endeavor: the new city being built in a remote rainforest.