Eight years ago there was almost nothing. Now a bustling hub of activity called Malabo, Equatorial Guinea is located on the volcanic island of Bioko in the Eastern Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Africa. What was the change that brought this agrarian society of coco and banana plantations into the Industrial era with a rather abrupt shove? Oil, Texas Tea, Black Gold, the natural resource that in the later half of the twentieth century has caused some of the largest disparities in wealth between populous and leaders on Earth. This familiar scenario is playing itself out once again in the small backwater of Equatorial Guinea, West Africa.
Equatorial Guinea: A Brief History
The history of Equatorial Guinea is one filled with European Colonization, violence and tribal war, and frequently changing, brutally repressive leadership.
The origins of the current day capital of Equatorial Guinea, Malabo, stem from Spanish Colonization of West Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. This was followed by the subsequent development of Malabo into a trading outpost for the Spanish crown as the lucrative commodities, bananas and coco, were grown for Spanish Europe’s consumption.
With the demise of colonial Spain and subsequent power struggles for dominance and power among the African nationals for Bioko Island, tribal warfare’s face appeared on the island. It did not last long. The originally native, peaceful Bubi tribe was displaced by the aggressive, warrior Fang tribe that originated from mainland West Africa. Today, the displaced Bubi’s still exist in more remote areas of Bioko Island either in the jungles or the elevated denizens along the side of the volcano. The Bubi’s are not necessarily privy to the national infrastructure system delivering clean water or electricity (not that all of the Fang descendants are either) and their communities tend to have a higher incidence of disease (i.e. cholera, tuberculosis, etc.). The Bubi’s have become the second class citizens of Equatorial Guinea. They are treated as such.
Following the securing of Equatorial Guinea by the Fang tribe, internal struggles for power were the next inevitable step. Many figure-heads rose to power only to be replaced by the next flavor of the week in leadership. The cycle of African power snatching succeeded by more African power snatching was interrupted in 1972 when mercenary, Alexander Ramsey Gay, a Scotsman, along with 13 other white western and 50 black African mercenaries appeared and took control of the island nation. Control was eventually relinquished back to the locals and The Dogs of War was authored about the entire sequence of events permanently making the small nation infamous in mercenary circles.
A return of control to the African Nationals meant a return to African politics. Corruption, inept leadership and brutal elimination of dissidents were the order of the day. From the current period of the late twentieth century when General Mbasogo seized power in a military coup to rule from 1979 to the present day, two pieces of anecdotal evidence help to give an apt characterization of the long lived and current Government. First, in the early 1990’s, ExxonMobil preformed a feasibility assessment of Bioko Island that concluded it was possible to spray and eliminate the current mosquito population from the island thereby eradicating the malaria problem. Equatorial Guinea is reported to be home to the greatest concentration of malaria cases involving P. falciparum, the chloroquinine resistant malarial strain that causes cerebral malaria, brain hemorrhaging and death. ExxonMobil also offered to pay for the eradication costs therby benefiting local expat population, as well as the local population. It is rumored that in close door meetings between ExxonMobil and extreme top national officials that the only question that was ever actually pursued was “What will you give me to spray my island?” The island was never sprayed and the mosquitoes still rule the day (and night) in Equatorial Guinea.
The second bit of anecdotal evidence is mainly rumor and unsupported claims said to be factual. It comes from the heavily shark infested blue waters surrounding the island. The current mythology is that the old practice of elimination of dissidents by shooting them on the cliffs of Malabo and throwing their bodies into the waters below gave rise to the large shark populations now in Malabo Bay as an extremely plentiful feeding ground was formed. This makes for a good story and Equatorial Guinea does routinely make the Amnesty Internationals list of Human Rights Violators.
Equatorial Guinea: Politics and the City of Malabo Today
Today, President Mbasogo has been in control of Malabo and the rest of Equatorial Guinea for nearly 30 years. However, a change in leadership may not be very far in the future. It is rumored by island nationals that the President’s colon cancer and HIV is acting up again. While the best healthcare in Europe is being utilized to delay the inevitable, the president is in his 70’s and may be close to exhausting his human faculties. Although Equatorial Guinea appears to be a representative democracy, it is becoming apparent with current rhetoric that an attempt will be made to transition power from the president to one of his sons. What will happen is anyone’s guess but, it would not be surprising to find a relative of the current president in the position of control in the government.
Although the president and family live in the lap of luxury and the majority of the country’s populous live in squalid conditions, the president is viewed as a national hero. In fact, there is only rousing support for current leadership. Why is it so rousing? Well, when any verbal criticism at all of the current government can lead to your personal elimination, these factors help to build nothing but the most verbose and enthusiastic support possible for the current regime. Beyond that, to those without the benefit of satellite television and the internet (which is almost everyone), media and the flow of information is severely curtailed. There is one local station that is governmentally operated and praises the king, (Oops…sorry, err…president) fairly often. There also no international media present or allowed on the Island, not that there’s much happening anyway. With these policies in play and combined with a small, traceable population of only around 30,000 to 40,000 people that is divided along ancient tribal lines, keeping control over the local, relatively unsophisticated and uneducated population would not appear to be of much difficulty. This should make for an easy path to keep control of Equatorial Guinea “in the family”.
The city of Malabo itself, despite its pest control issues, is a rather quiet if not quaint West African city. It is not very dangerous and still dominated near the center of the city by architecture influenced by the Spanish colonization period. A set of antiquated cannons from colonial times act as a centerpiece for the skyline from the water as they face out over the Port and Malabo Bay aiding in the historic feel of the area. Bars and restaurants abound although only a few are fit for expatriate consumption as the others often contribute to food poisoning or worse. The Pizza Place and Banana Bar are the cervezerias of choice with the only clean, non-insect infested hotel accommodations being located in the hotel that plays hosts to the Banana Bar (and luckily the cannons are located adjacent to the hotel). These are all located in the center of town.
From the airport, the major port of entry from Europe and most of Africa, the center of town is not difficult to find as the one major thoroughfare on the island is three miles long and (you guessed it) connects the airport and the town. The only other method of entry to the island is by ferry from EG’s mainland city of Bata. This runs once a week and has all the trappings of an African ferry service. Dilapidated equipment, overcrowding, no safety procedures or equipment and the ride is a time consuming process. A vague specter, reminiscent of the Senegalese ferry disaster, seems to hang over every boat ride. To complicate matters, the waters off of Equatorial Guinea give themselves to unpredictable and violent changes in weather as hurricanes bound for the Caribbean and Southeastern US begin here when warm water currents collide with cooler weather patterns coming down from Mount Rainer in Cameroon or Bioko, EG. If capable, the preferred method of travel would have to be by air.
Other than working, drinking, and short term site seeing, local expat populations have expressed interest in hiking, mountain climbing, and other exploratory activities to pass the time. This has been met with limited success due to the surrounding jungle being filled with mosquitoes, multiple species of poisonous spiders, green mambas and other tougher than average biological barriers. A Frenchman set off on a climbing expedition to the summit of the volcano several weeks ago. If he ever shows up again, we’ll find out how adventure sporting is on EG. Most local expat sentiment is to enjoy the bars and view down by the water or from an elevated patio at the base of the volcano.
Equatorial Guinea: Future Hopes, Possibilities, and the Reality of It All
With only eight years since the discovery and beginning of further exploration and development of offshore oilfields in Equatorial Guinea, little time has passed for EG’s population to become disillusioned to the same degree as some of their other West African counterparts. But, give it time – Nigeria and Cameroon, geographically, are not that far away. Dissention and the “What Do You Have for Me?” mentality seem to originate at the top and cascade ever further downward (the trickle down economic theory was embraced whole heartedly in Western Africa) until completely pervading and permeating the West African society and psyche. Equatorial Guinea is still, metaphorically speaking, on the beginning of the road to future natural resource wealth. As 800,000 barrels of oil are flowing daily out of EG waters with an eventual goal of 1 Million, the hope is that EG will take the proverbial road less traveled for the good of the country and citizenship.
If a word could be used for this small, mostly island, West African nation, it would be “Potential”. Equatorial Guinea could, theoretically, become successful on the order of and by similar development to Singapore. Equatorial Guinea’s largest advantage is its location. The initial wealth afforded to the country from the development of offshore oil reserves and the possession of a deep water port along the West Coast of Africa are the country’s two largest assets. How can these assets be developed beyond a multi-billion dollar GDP for the country to a multi-trillion dollar GDP and the possibility of one of the highest average incomes among the civilian population in the world?With long range governmental planning for populous education, business and infrastructure development, an aggressive campaign to eliminate corruption from the president down (most importantly with the customs service) coupled with the establishment of transparent government and business practices, the only competent and dependable shipping hub in all of West Africa could be established. This would give access and a secure area for both regional management and staging activities for the Sub-Saharan portion of the African continent within close but inaccessible proximity of the mainland. This would be advantageous for oil, telecom, and other multi-national entities that currently base themselves out of Lagos, Nigeria, Doualla, Cameroon or Europe for their African operations.
Unfortunately, this type of development takes foresight and an altruistic view for country and fellow citizen. None of the potential future leaders appear to have the foresight or education comparable to a contemporary like the Emir of Qatar who took a spit of sand in the Gulf of Arabia all the way to international affluence while working within similar parameters. As the younger of the two sons that seem poised to assume leadership from their father races his new Ferrari up and down the only three mile stretch of road in Equatorial Guinea, the other son is disrupting truck shipping into the port demanding tolls be paid so that he can buy a Ferrari of his own. Albert Schweitzer they’re not.
I am now getting ready for my hour of departure to come. Sitting in the terminal built solely for the oil workers that come and go from Equatorial Guinea, I have a sneaking suspicion that ExxonMobil is responsible for the signs that read “Please Don’t Bribe the Customs Officers” behind the counter and not the government. Well, so much for anti-corruption policies being initiated by the EG regulatory bodies. My only other thought before my last three Heineken’s hit me on this warm, humid African night is to wonder if any of my other friends or colleagues went through the regular terminal at the airfield and got robbed at knife point by the customs official there? It happened to a friend of mine in November and is always a possibility in the “uncontrolled” terminal. The robbery was silently supervised by the police/ military official standing by the counter with the assault rifle. Se la vies, EG.