Skip to main content

World Report 2013: Equatorial Guinea

Corruption, poverty, and repression continue to plague Equatorial Guinea under President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been in power since 1979. Vast oil revenues fund lavish lifestyles for the small elite surrounding the president, while most of the population lives in poverty. Those who question this disparity are branded “enemies.” Despite some areas of relative progress, human rights conditions remain very poor. Arbitrary detention and unfair trials continue to take place, mistreatment of detainees remains commonplace, sometimes rising to the level of torture.

While access to Equatorial Guinea improved somewhat for international journalists attending major events in the country, several reported being harassed or intimidated. Government repression of local journalists, civil society groups, and members of the political opposition continues.

President Obiang seeks to enhance his international standing and reputation. To that end, Equatorial Guinea hosted the Africa Cup of Nations and other prominent events in 2012 to present a new image of both the president and the country. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued a long-stalled prize sponsored by the president after earlier dropping his name from the controversial award.

Obiang also continues to defend the reputation of Teodorín, his eldest son and presumed successor, whom he elevated to be the country’s second vice president—a position not contemplated in the new constitution. The government strongly objected when France seized Teodorín’s Paris mansion and issued an international arrest warrant against him on money-laundering charges, claiming the son’s post granted him immunity from prosecution abroad. The government also asked the International Court of Justice to order France to halt the case.

Economic and Social Rights
Fulfillment of key socio-economic rights, such as the right to education and basic healthcare, remains poor, despite significant oil revenues and the country's small population, which make Equatorial Guinea's per capita gross domestic product—at approximately US$30,000 according to UN figures—among the highest in Africa and the world.

Government social spending has increased relative to prior years since the adoption of the Horizon 2020 development plan in 2007, and was supplemented by projects financed largely by foreign oil companies. However, such spending remains low in relation to need and available resources. The country has reduced alarmingly high maternal mortality rates by 81 percent over 20 years, and the child mortality rate also fell from 1990 to 2010. Much of the population lacks access to adequate sanitation, potable water, and reliable electricity.

The government continued a massive building spree, financed by oil revenues, which raises questions about its spending priorities. Beyond infrastructure such as roads and power plants, much of the construction is for the enjoyment of the country’s tiny elite and foreign guests. Projects include a new city being built in a remote rainforest and a planned $77 million presidential guesthouse.

Foreign investigations into high levels of corruption involving President Obiang and his close associates gathered further momentum in France, Spain, and the United States. In June, a legal filing in the US government’s asset seizure case alleged extortion and embezzlement of public funds by Teodorín on a grand scale. The complaint details more than $300 million in spending from 2000 to 2011, including on art by master painters and mansions on four continents, allegedly with the use of illicitly obtained funds. In July, after a French judge issued an arrest warrant against Teodorín, French authorities also seized his luxurious Paris mansion, whose contents they had earlier claimed.

Freedom of Expression and Association
Equatorial Guinea remains notorious for its lack of press freedom. Journalists from state-owned media outlets remain unable to criticize the government without risk of censorship or reprisal. The few private media outlets that exist are generally owned by persons close to President Obiang; self-censorship is common. El Lector, a private, infrequently-published newspaper whose editor is simultaneously a Ministry of Information official, has at times run articles featuring members of the opposition.

The government remains intolerant of critical views from abroad. A greater number of foreign journalists were permitted to travel to cover events in the country, but several who attended the Cup of Nations in early 2012 reported being subjected to surveillance and harassment while they worked.  

Human Rights Defenders
The country has no legally registered independent human rights groups. The few local activists who seek to address human rights related issues are vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and reprisals.

Fabián Nsue Nguema, a lawyer who has handled sensitive cases involving political prisoners and those accused of coup plots, “disappeared” after visiting a client in prison. He was illegally arrested and kept in secret and incommunicado detention for several days before being allowed to see his family. He was released without charge after eight days, following international pressure.

In another case, Dr. Wenceslao Mansogo Alo, a human rights defender and opposition figure, was jailed in February and convicted in May for professional negligence in a trial widely regarded as unjust. He was harassed in detention, and there were restrictions on his visitors, contrary to a court order. Mansogo and 21 other prisoners were pardoned on the president’s birthday in June. He filed an appeal against court orders to close his private health clinic, pay $13,000 in fines, and cease practicing medicine for five years.

The government inhibited the careers of other human rights defenders throughout the year. In April, Ponciano Mbomio Nvó, one of Mansogo’s lawyers and a frequent defender of jailed political opponents, was suspended from legal practice for two years for arguing in Mansogo’s trial that the case was politically motivated. In January, government officials allegedly pressured a private company to rescind a job offer made to Alfredo Okenve, the head of a local NGO who was sacked in 2010 by the National University after criticizing the government.

Political Parties and Opposition
The ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) maintains a monopoly over the country’s political life. It orchestrated a constitutional referendum that was approved in November 2011 with 97.7 percent approval in a vote marred by irregularities. The opposition was deterred from observing the voting and protested efforts to prevent some opposition members from monitoring the polling places and from speaking out against voting fraud. A year later, none of the “independent” oversight bodies created under the new constitution had been established and the president declared that new presidential term limits would not apply retroactively.

Most political parties are aligned with PDGE, which benefits from a virtual monopoly on power, funding, and access to national media. Political opponents are pressured through various means, including arbitrary arrest and harassment, as well as inducements—such as employment opportunities—if they join the PDGE. Breakaway factions of the two political parties that maintain independence—the Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS) and the People's Union (UP)—joined the ruling party.

Torture, Arbitrary Detention, and Unfair Trials
Due process rights continue to be flouted in Equatorial Guinea and prisoner mistreatment remains common. Lawyers and others who have visited prisons and jails indicate that serious abuses continue, including beatings in detention that amount to torture. Fabián Nsue Nguema reported that the client he sought to visit when he was himself arrested in October, Agustín Esono Nsogo, was tortured. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited some detention centers but did not have full access to others in 2012.

President Obiang exercises inordinate control over the judiciary, which lacks independence. Lawyers have reported that judges say they need to consult with the office of the president regarding their decisions in sensitive cases. The president is designated as the country’s “chief magistrate.” Among other powers, he chairs the body that oversees judges and appoints the body’s remaining members.

Florentino Manguire, who spent over two years in prison on unsubstantiated theft charges filed by his former business associate, Obiang’s son Teodorín, received a presidential pardon in June. In August, he was again arbitrarily arrested and held for 10 days, until his release without charge after receiving a stern warning not to reveal information about Teodorín.

Key International Actors
Following a contentious split vote in May 2012, UNESCO’s governing board reinstated a prize established in 2008 at Obiang’s request after renaming it the UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea prize. It did not resolve continued questions surrounding the source of the funding that was provided by Obiang. Neither UNESCO’s director-general nor Obiang attended the award ceremony in July, which coincided with French judicial actions against Teodorín.

The Obiang government filed a case against France at the International Court of Justice in the Hague over its pursuit of Teodorín. Teodorín has railed against foreigners in speeches broadcast on state media. He filed a defamation case against the head of Transparency International (TI) France in March. The government of Equatorial Guinea then filed a domestic criminal defamation complaint against the head of TI France in September and requested that Interpol issue an international arrest warrant against him.

Spain, the former colonial power, applied some pressure on Equatorial Guinea to improve its human rights record. The Spanish government publicly opposed the UNESCO prize and criticized the imprisonment of Dr. Mansogo.

The US is Equatorial Guinea’s main trading partner and source of investment in the oil sector. The US government credited the Obiang government for making some improvements in its human rights record, but expressed deep concern over the prosecution of Mansogo and strongly opposed the Obiang prize at UNESCO. It also co-organized an off-the-record June meeting between representatives of civil society, including Human Rights Watch, and President Obiang. The meeting was not followed by any decisive action to address the groups’ calls for meaningful reform.