African Leaders Discuss the Future of One Dictator While Hosted by Another

By Patrick Goodenough | June 29, 2011 | 4:58 AM EDT

President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama pose for a photo with President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea and his wife, Constancia Mangue de Obiang, during a reception for world leaders visiting for the U.N. General Assembly opening in September 2009. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

( – As calls for freedom roil the north of the continent, Africa’s leaders are meeting this week to discuss Libya. They’re being hosted by a despot, who – like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi -- seized power in a coup and has been labeled one of Africa’s worst dictators.

Joining them for the African Union summit in Equatorial Guinea will be U.N. deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro, on Ban Ki-moon’s behalf, a U.N. spokeswoman confirmed on Tuesday.

To host the 17th summit of the A.U., President Teodoro Obiang has built an $830 million luxury complex outside the capital, Malabo, featuring more than 50 presidential villas, a heliport, golf course, spa and artificial beach.

Equatorial Guinea, which comprises a small rectangle of territory on the mainland and several islands in the armpit of Africa, discovered oil in the 1990s and exports some 350,000 barrels a day. About one-third of the total goes to North America, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The oil boom has not benefited citizens, however. Despite proven oil reserves of 1.1 billion barrels, and a resulting per capita GDP that places it 28th in the world –and number one in Africa – the African Economic Outlook report states that more than 70 percent of Equatorial Guinea’s population falls below the poverty line. (The government disputes those figures.)

Equatorial Guinea security agents walk along a jetty inside Sipopo, a luxury complex constructed to host the 17th African Union Summit outside Malabo, Equatorial Guinea on Tuesday, June 28, 2011. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

“The Obiang government hopes that foreign visitors will be favorably impressed by the deluxe facilities built for their enjoyment,” Tutu Alicante, executive director of a Washington-based organization, EG Justice, said in a statement. “But visitors should instead question why the government is building villas for the rich while Equatorial Guinea’s poor live in slums without reliable electricity or drinking water.”

Heads of state and government from the 53-member A.U. meet on Thursday and Friday for a summit whose theme is “youth empowerment” but with the Libyan crisis expected to dominate.

Gaddafi played a key role in the establishment of the A.U. a decade ago, and many fellow African leaders appeared reluctant to abandon the Libyan strongman, just 13 months after he had relinquished the A.U.’s rotating presidency.

Initially slow to condemn Gaddafi’s violent crackdown on anti-government protests, the A.U. subsequently sought to mediate an end to the fighting, without success.

When the A.U. was created to replace the 40 year-old Organization of the African Unity, its founding document, the Constitutive Act of July 2000, provided for the suspension of any government that “shall come to power through unconstitutional means.”

The provision should theoretically have excluded from membership a number of African countries, including Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Tunisia, Sudan, Gambia and others – but it was not enforced retroactively.

Like Gaddafi, Obiang’s route to power and his record since posed no barrier to being chosen by African leaders to chair the A.U. in 2011, and in that capacity he hosts this week’s summit.

Obiang, a former military police officer, seized power in 1979 – ten years after Gaddafi’s coup – and had his predecessor tried and executed. He won “elections” in 1989 (taking 99 percent of the vote, according to official figures), 1996 (98 percent), 2002 (97 percent) and 2009 (96 percent).

Human rights monitoring groups report severe restrictions on freedom of assembly and association, a judiciary whose independence is compromised, and reports of torture, detention of government opponents and extrajudicial killings.

Following the outbreak of anti-government protests in North Africa and the Middle East, the regime has further intensified repression, with public demonstrations banned.

Obiang’s human rights record places Equatorial Guinea in the same category as North Korea, Burma and Somalia in the assessment of monitoring groups.

In its 2011 report on the “worst of the worst” countries in the world, democracy watchdog Freedom House listed Equatorial Guinea as one of the nine countries anywhere in the world scoring lowest for political rights and civil liberties – a ranking even lower than those of Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China and Syria.

Corruption has also been rampant. When Transparency International assessed 178 countries in its annual “Corruption Perceptions Index” last year, it placed Equatorial Guinea at 168.

After the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations investigated the impact of foreign corruption in the U.S., its February 2010 report detailed suspect financial dealings in America, including alleged money-laundering, by Obiang’s son and heir apparent, also named Teodoro.

Despite documented corruption and human rights abuses, Obiang’s regime has not drawn the same level of criticism from outside governments and international organizations as some others have.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Obiang a “good friend” when he visited Washington in 2006. Just a month earlier, the State Department in its annual human rights report said Obiang’s 2002 re-election had been “marred by extensive fraud and intimidation” and that “the government's human rights record remained poor, and the government continued to commit or condone serious abuses.”

In 2008, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) agreed to establish a life sciences award named for, and funded by, Obiang. Human rights advocates campaigned against the move and the U.S. mission to the Paris-based U.N. body led efforts to reverse the decision – a step that was eventually taken last October.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow