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Equatorial Guinea: Legitimizing Obiang

With support from American lobbyists and government officials, oil companies and the banking industry, President Obiang is overhauling his public image and attempting to legitimize his government. Image by William Sands. Equatorial Guinea, 2012.

The Iberia flight from Madrid to Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, takes six hours and leaves every other day. It is normally booked full. In first-class, wealthy Equato-Guineans enjoy pre-flight cocktails and businessmen in dapper suits browse the International Herald Tribune and Financial Times. Behind them, Western diplomats intently study reports on their iPads. In economy, there is a chaotic mix of passengers jostling to their seats. Equato-Guinean immigrants returning home for a visit stuff the overhead bins with bags bursting at the seams. Groups of heavyset men with a global potpourri of names like Vlad, Igor, Tony, Billy and Juan share oil rig stories in the aisles. It's obviously not their first time traveling to Malabo. There are similar direct flights to Equatorial Guinea from Houston and Paris. But the country hasn't always been this connected to the rest of the world; after independence from Spain in 1968 it was renowned for its dictatorial governance and resentment of the outside world.

In 1995, the United States closed its embassy in Malabo following years of deterioration in diplomatic ties between the two countries. In 1994, John Bennett, the American ambassador, had his life threatened after criticizing the country's president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and his regime's brutal human rights record. The Clinton administration. preferring to focus its energies on other countries in the region such as Nigeria and Angola, moved its diplomatic representation to Yaounde, Cameroon. On the outside it appeared as though Equatorial Guinea was returning to its hermit state roots. However, shortly after the embassy was closed, large petroleum reserves were found off the country's coast. The discovery was a game-changer for Equatorial Guinea and its relations with the rest of the world.

Arriving in Malabo, passengers exit the plane into the airport and down a flight of stairs to immigration. With the exception of American citizens, who are exempt from entry visa requirements, foreigners must present the appropriate documents, and are photographed and fingerprinted before entering the country. After immigration passengers collect their luggage in the baggage area and pass through customs.

There are various different metal detectors and scanners—all very state of the art. However, the line is a confusing mess of people and bags slowly moving forward. Outside, hired cars wait for the teams of oil workers, businessmen and diplomats. The drive from the airport to Malabo is on a well-paved toll road and passes a gaudy Hilton Hotel, the walled compounds where the oil workers live, various palaces of President Obiang, his wife and other members of his regime, and finally the ex-pat neighborhood of Las Caracoles. The hermit state is open for business.

Since the discovery of oil in Equato-Guinean waters, many would argue that few in the country have benefited from the country's enormous resource wealth. In 2007 alone it is estimated the country exported more than 1.8 billion barrels of oil. Petroleum allowed Obiang to create a kleptocratic state buttressed by his personal oversight of access to exploration and drilling rights. In 2003, Obiang took full control of the national treasury. He justified the action by claiming he alone could protect the country from internal corruption. While the country was repeatedly ranked at the bottom of the UN's International Human Development Index, Forbes magazine estimated Obiang's net worth to be around $600 million.

Instability in the global resource economy was gradually converting Equatorial Guinea into a very strategic place for the world's major oil-consuming economies. Unlike the Middle East, plagued by war and political instability, Equatorial Guinea's Catholic heritage and heavy-handed government were viewed as strategically advantageous for American energy interests. Access to African oil was a hot topic in neo-conservative circles, and the same human rights violations that troubled ex-ambassador Bennett didn't seem to trouble the Bush administration. In 2006 Condoleezza Rice called Obiang “a good friend” and the American embassy was reopened.

Obiang hired the influential Washington D.C. lobbying and PR firm Qorvis Communications to work on his image in the United States for an estimated $60,000 per month. Similarly, former Democratic lobbyist and Clinton administration official, Lanny Davis was paid a $1 million a year to promote Obiang's interests in the United States, according to forms filed under the Foreign Agent Registration Act. Coincidentally, Davis was also hired by Ivory Coast's then-president Laurent Gbagbo to defend that despotic leader’s image against accusations of widespread human rights violations. International oil companies also spent large sums on lobbying in support of the Equato-Guinean regime: approximately $6.6 million by ExxonMobil Corp. in 2008; $1.3 million by Amareda Hess Corp. in 2009; and an estimated $5 million by Marathon Corp. in 2010, according to information provided under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. This lobbying and political pressure created a quid pro quo situation where the United States wouldn't openly criticize the regime, and the regime guaranteed the US oil-industry near-exclusive access to the country's national oil reserves. Unfortunately, due to the lack of transparency, no one knows how much oil revenue the Obiang regime has siphoned out of the economy or how much revenue oil companies have earned in their operations in Equatorial Guinea.

Lobbyists and oil companies aren't the only ones who've worked to legitimize Obiang and his regime.

The banking industry, politicians and government officials from major oil-consuming countries, the defense industry, and international organizations have also been important players in this legitimization. In 2005, Riggs Bank, based in Washington D.C., pleaded guilty to various money laundering charges and agreed to pay a $16 million dollar fine after it was revealed, among other things, that the bank had facilitated payments of $445,800 from a major oil company to the account of a 14-year-old relative of Obiang. In 2009, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson was convicted and sent to prison after being found guilty of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Jefferson was accused of using his public office to promote lucrative business deals in Equatorial Guinea. In the same year, President Obama and the First Lady posed for an official photo with President Obiang and his wife. Military Professional Resources Inc. or MPRI, a defense contractor led by an ex-aide to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, won a $250 million dollar contract to train Equato-Guinean forces human rights and to assist in the development of the country's maritime defense. The contract was approved by Congress and made public by both the Obiang government and MPRI in 2010. Even UNESCO has been dragged onto the Obiang bandwagon. In 2008, Obiang gave UNESCO $3 million for the creation of the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences. The prize was temporarily suspended after international criticism, but has recently been reinstated without Obiang's name.

The international legitimization of the Obiang regime is not a conspiracy. Rather it appears to be the result of the global strategic importance of the country's oil reserves, and the willingness of some to indulge in corruption. There are structures in place both in the U.S. and internationally to fight corruption, but these are rarely enforced effectively. In 2002, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced the creation of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, EITI, at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. After international pressure for revenue transparency in several high-profile extractive industries, the World Bank announced its endorsement of the EITI in 2003. Countries with large quantities of extractable natural resources were encouraged to join the initiative or “list,” as it's known. However, the EITI was non-binding. Other than “de-listing” there was no formal punishment for failures in compliance. Equatorial Guinea has recently been de-listed.

In response to the financial meltdown of 2009, President Obama signed into law the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Included in the statute is a provision that required all foreign and U.S. companies to declare their payments to governments for oil, gas, and minerals. But lobbyists and politicians loyal to these industries have worked hard to weaken the statute’s regulatory powers. Earlier, President Bush signed a proclamation that officially restricted corrupt foreign government officials and their families from traveling to the U.S. The Obiangs, however, have not had any difficulty accessing the country.

Recently two judges in France signed an arrest order for Teodorin Obiang, eldest son of the president. The arrest warrant follows years of investigation into Teodorin's finances and business interests in France. Last year French police raided properties of the president's son and confiscated various luxury automobiles, furniture and art.

These recent developments are encouraging signs that the Obiang regime's endemic corruption hasn't gone unnoticed by the international community. However, in comparison to the outspoken international criticism of the Egyptian, Libyan, Yemeni and Syrian regimes, this action by the French state seems mild at best. Ironically, as the struggle against corruption and dictatorial regimes gains ground in the oil-wealthy nations of North Africa and the Middle East, the rights of those in lesser- known oil-rich states are ever more expendable. If human rights take a back seat to national interests, and if anti-corruption initiatives are not seriously enforced, rapacious leaders like Obiang will continue to prosper.