Back in 2006 then-US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the politics of energy was “warping” diplomacy around the world. The very next week she opened a function attended by President Theodore Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, one of the most hideous mass murderers in human history, by describing him as a “good friend”.
“We do have to do something about the energy problem. I can tell you that nothing has really taken me aback more, as Secretary of State, than the way that the politics of energy is […] ‘warping’ diplomacy around the world. It has given extraordinary power to some states that are using that power in not very good ways for the international system, states that would otherwise have very little power.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, April 5, 2006.
At least Condy demonstrated that she knew what she was talking about. Yet despite the outcry which followed this, and even attempts to remove Obiang by force involving Sir Mark Thatcher, son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and and other less-than-transparent business figures with Western government connections, Obiang is still a “good friend” of the democratic West. Why?
The West cannot produce enough energy to meet its needs, and therefore depends on oil supplies from other parts of the world. However, all the traditional supply nations, in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, are given a bad press in the West. They are accused of being “unstable”, “undemocratic”, “repressive” and all the other buzzwords of infamy.
Much of this is true, as a vast library of reports from human rights watchdogs has shown. But Western governments only actually act on a fraction of these, despite provoking these reports by blackening the names of these countries in the first place.
The real reason the West bites the hands which feed it is because oil-rich nations can negotiate from a position of strength. If the West tries to control them they can simply cut off the supply. “We the People” will then blame our rulers for taking away our transport, amenities and jobs. Nobody wants to risk that.
To “diversify supply”, and therefore control it, the West courts oil-rich nations in other parts of the globe. No matter who runs them or what they do. If the West really believed its democratic rhetoric it would not touch many of these governments with a bargepole. But if it happens far away, the murder and oppression of millions is a fair enough price to pay for oil.
Obiang was long trumpeted in the West as the man who had overthrown the first President of Equatorial Guinea, his uncle Francisco Macias Nguema. Macias was not well-known in the West, and neither was his country, so few cared what went on in this former Spanish colony between Gabon and Cameroon which had not yet found oil in its waters. But what we did know about Macias was appalling.
Other Presidents have been murderers, but few have killed or exiled up to two thirds of their country’s population for both political and purely sadistic reasons. Macias had been democratically elected in 1968, but soon got tired of the inconvenience of open democracy and made himself President for Life. He imposed a one party state, meaning only his party could remove him. But even this avenue was closed when he became Life President of his party as well.
A serious drug abuser, his public behaviour became increasingly erratic. On one occasion he addressed the nation from the capital and demanded that if God existed he must appear in the main square now. When nothing happened he declared himself to be God, and transferred all the country’s capital to his personal bank account in Switzerland.
In time, this proved insufficient for his needs. So he murdered the governor of the national bank and removed all the foreign currency in the country, note by note, to his farm. When his circle finally decided, after 11 years, that he was insane he fled to this farm and burnt every single note to try and destroy the country.
Macias was arrested by Obiang, put on trial on 29th September 1979 and executed the same afternoon. Obiang has lived off that day ever since. Macias was the opposite of what a democrat should be, so anyone who gets rid of him must be better. So being democrats, we have to give him a fair go at transforming his country.
This is why it was many years before anyone in the West reported how Obiang had been able to take control. He had gained the levers of power through being part of Macias’ inner circle. He was part of it not because he was Macias’ nephew but because was head of the National Guard, and also governor of the notorious Black Beach Prison.
Macias gave the orders, Obiang enforced them. More than any other individual Theodore Obiang was personally responsible for the torture and murder – he himself called it genocide – perpetrated during his uncle’s rule. He was the one actually doing it. Is this why our rulers say nothing when nothing has changed?
Like his predecessor, Obiang declares himself to be, in effect, God, and states that this entitles him to kill who he wants without going to Hell. He has said publicly, “what right does an opposition have to criticise the actions of a government?” Not that there is much of that in Equatorial Guinea, as although elections are held the President’s party wins almost every seat.
The US Embassy is based in a building owned by a government minister, one of many accused of systematic torture. The US pays this man rent, and thereby funds his torture campaigns. The main prison is just down the road, the Embassy staff can hear the screams of the tortured every day. However, they remain the friends of the torturer rather than the tortured.
The US Embassy only reopened in 2006. It had been closed ten years earlier after a previous Ambassador, John Bennett, a public critic of the regime’s human rights record, had been accused of conducting witchcraft over the graves of some British airmen and fled under threat of death. This in a country which banned Roman Catholicism, practiced by 80% of the population, in favour of a form of witchcraft soon after independence.
The US returned because when the oil was found, soon afterwards, the place nobody wanted to know suddenly became popular. Oil companies like Exxon-Mobil take part in the Soviet-style public parades exalting the great leader. British cabinet ministers were forced to publicly apologize for denying they had prior knowledge of the coup allegedly funded by Sir Mark Thatcher, when documents clearly showed they had been told about it in person.
Due to its oil revenues Equatorial Guinea has for several years had a per capita income of around $30,000, high by regional standards. Yet over 400,000 of its remaining 540,000 population suffer from malnutrition and have great difficulty finding clean drinking water. Meanwhile, Obiang is estimated by Forbes to be worth $600 million, making him one of the world’s richest heads of state.
Like Macias he has appropriated all the country’s reserves, saying this is the only way to stop his civil servants from stealing them. He and his family have expensive homes in various Western countries, principally France. Nowhere do their earnings tally with their outlay.
Extensive investigations have led to the US-based Riggs Bank, and others, being fined millions for laundering his money. The fines bankrupted Riggs, but Obiang was not charged. He and his son have been charged with embezzlement, but nothing has ever been proven. They have just seized his son’s sports cars, all 11 of them.
Isn’t this what democracy is supposed to protect us from? If you asked the Guinean in the street he might agree. But successive journalists, before being thrown out of the country, have noted that nobody talks to foreigners. They know what expressing an opinion means in a country where opposition has habitually been a death sentence.
Macias isolated the country but like everyone else ultimately found he needed friends. Towards the end he found one – North Korea. He sent his family there just before he was deposed. One of his daughters was brought up there and speaks Korean as a first language.
Much has been made of this connection, as if having a friend like Kim il-sung showed us the true character of Macias. But if Macias is defined by his friends, why is the West not defined by being Obiang’s friend?
When we have friends who continually behave in a way we disapprove of we ask ourselves, “Why is this person our friend?” We decide whether it is worth putting up with them for the sake of something else. Sometimes it is. But would most citizens of democratic nations vote for condemning their fellow men to the regime of Equatorial Guinea, for the sake of less than a quarter of one percent of the world’s oil?
This isn’t an issue about a faraway country most people will never see. It is about why democratic rulers saddle their people to friends they don’t want. The victims of these friends can’t talk to our rulers. But they can sometimes talk to us, through the media, the internet and personal contact. Then they invariably ask, “Is this what you mean by democracy?”
In a democracy “We the People” decide who governs us and then judge what our elected rulers do. Those rulers may think they are the best government on earth, but if the people think differently at election time they have to go. Therefore the formally expressed opinion of “We the People” is more important than the opinion of our rulers, and must be treated as such.
Democratic governments declare some other governments their friends and others enemies. We the People often complain that, as in this case, our rulers have chosen friends we do not want to be associated with. But when we do, our democratic governments suddenly know better than we do.
Our rulers explain that they are making strategic decisions for reasons “We the People” can’t grasp. Therefore, if we don’t agree with them “We the People” are too stupid to understand the higher reasoning of our rulers. They don’t use these words, but this is what is said every time.
They know, we don’t, so our opinion is worth nothing. Our rulers don’t respect democracy, in other words.
Every drop of blood spilled in Equatorial Guinea, and of those silenced for complaining about it, is on the hands of its friends. But democracies can run away if they are held to account, because that is the other problem. If we like what our rulers do, they say they did it. If we don’t, it’s our fault, because we elected them.
It would cost the West very little to withdraw from Equatorial Guinea and denounce its regime, just as it has denounced those of Iraq, which has much more oil, Zimbabwe, Syria and many other places. For the sake of the oil companies it doesn’t. Maybe, therefore, the oil companies should stand for election and ask the people to endorse their priorities. It doesn’t happen, because they know what “We the People” would say.
No democratic country, by definition, should have Theodore Obiang and his regime as “good friends”. We the People are owed that, just as much as the people of Equatorial Guinea are owed that.
Alternatively, the oil companies can pay people to murder us so they can profit from our home. And when that happens, we will be told we don’t understand; it was all our own fault in the first place.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.