What does an autocrat have to do to get some respect? Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the longtime ruler of Equatorial Guinea, offered to plough $3 million into a worthy cause — a UNESCO life sciences award to be named after himself — but instead of burnishing his legacy and that of his country, he triggered a backlash.
An avalanche of criticism from international do-gooders — human rights activists, exiles and press freedom groups — used the announcement of the award to draw attention to Obiang’s allegedly corrupt practices, repressive policies, and inadequate investment in the country’s poor. The controversy — which also triggered attacks on UNESCO for associating itself with the African strongman — attracted broad media coverage, including stories by Turtle Bay, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.
Obiang’s government is now turning to a team of American lobbyists and PR firms to restore his reputation. Qorvis Communications, a Washington, D.C., public relations firm that has worked with the government since last August, signed in May a $55,000 per month contract to step up its advocacy. Since then, Qorvis has emailed scores of press releases highlighting all manner of good deeds by the Obiang government: funding a program for maternal health, supporting animal conservation, congratulating an Equatorial Guinean native who was voted best high school teacher in Michigan, and perhaps most importantly, signing a $250 million contract with an American security company.
The effort to restore Obiang’s standing will not be easy. The Obiang family is the target of an ongoing criminal corruption investigation in France. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has also linked Obiang to over $700 million in government funds deposited at Riggs National Bank in Washington by American oil companies. According to the report, which was outlined by Harper’s, Riggs "turned a blind eye to evidence suggesting the bank was handling the proceeds of foreign corruption, and allowed numerous suspicious transactions to take place without notifying law enforcement."
In March, the State Department’s 2009 human rights report on Equatorial Guinea’s human rights record cited reports of government corruption, suppression of free speech and press, and a pattern of "unlawful killings by security forces; torture of detainees and prisoners by security forces; life-threatening conditions in prisons and detention facilities; official impunity; arbitrary arrest, detention, and incommunicado detention; harassment and deportation of foreign residents with limited due process; judicial corruption and lack of due process; restrictions on the right to privacy; restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and movement; government corruption."
Obiang’s son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, has been the subject of numerous articles — including this detailed account last year in Harper’s magazine — documenting how he funneled tens of millions through U.S. banks and spent lavishly — purchasing two luxury boats, a fleet of sports cars and a $33.8 million Gulf Stream V private jet — while earning only $5,000 a month as a minister for agriculture and forestry.
David Mayorga, who represents Equatorial Guinea for Qorvis, conceded that he faces a major challenge in promoting the country’s case. But he says that the criticism stems from a lack of understanding of all that Obiang is doing to improve the lives of his people. "There are a million things working against them, but Equatorial Guinea wants a voice, they want a seat at the table. They feel their country’s been misrepresented and they want to fix it," Mayorga told Turtle Bay. "The only way to go about that is to demonstrate that progress and development is taking place there today. And they have not communicated that in the past."
The Qorvis campaign has underscored an important lesson for Washington’s lobbying community. President Obama’s commitment to a new era of diplomatic engagement with outlaw countries like Burma, Iran, and Syria, has not yet increased Western companies’ interest in expanding into their economies. Lobbyists working for unpopular foreign governments, particularly in Africa and Asia, are seeking both to increase their standing in Washington and within the business community.
In February, Turtle Bay reported that two former U.N. war crimes prosecutors, David M. Crane and Alan W. White, both former Pentagon officials, were hired by the Guinean military junta to investigate the military’s role in the September 2009 massacre of civilians in a sporting arena. Their consulting firm, CW Group International, produced a controversial report that suggested the country’s president, Moussa Dadis Camara, had played no role in the killing. Crane said his work in Guinea was aimed at helping the country’s military leaders reform their military, and insisted that his firm produced an honest report. "There were no punches pulled," Crane told Turtle Bay at the time. "It was clear to us that crimes were committed against the Guinean people and had to be dealt with under domestic law and possibly international law. We certainly want to see justice for the Guinean people and particularly the victims."
Equatorial Guinea has emerged as one of Africa’s wealthiest nations since the late 1990s, when American oil giants discovered some of the continent’s largest oil and gas reserves. The country’s GDP per capita — estimated at more than $37,000 per year — surpassed that of major Western economies like Italy and Saudi Arabia.
But the country’s health indicators and standard of living have remained among the worst in the world. "Here is a country where people should have the per capita wealth of Spain or Italy, but instead they live in conditions comparable to Chad or the Democratic Republic of the Congo," said Arvind Ganesan, director of the Business and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. "This is a testament to the government’s corruption, mismanagement, and callousness toward its own people."
President Obiang seized power in a military coup in 1979, and has won four allegedly-rigged presidential elections, never by less than 95 percent. The State Department’s 2009 Human Rights report called into question Obiang’s reelection in November, 2009, by 95.37 percent. "The lopsided result and weak independent monitoring of the electoral process raised suspicions of systematic vote fraud," the report stated.
The country’s leader has hired a number of players to represent his country in the United States, including Lanny Davis, a former White House official under President Bill Clinton, who signed a $2 million contract with the government, and the heavyweight lobbying firm Cassidy and Associates. Earlier this month, Equatorial Guinea announced a $250 million award to an American security contractor, Military Professional Resources Initiative (MPRI), to "protect the country’s vast aquatic resources" from pirates and other threats. The contract is part of a long-term deal designed to ensure the country’s stability. "Equatorial Guinea is open for business; they love America and want to continue these business relations," said Mayorga.
But keeping Equatorial Guinea on message remains a bit of a struggle. In making the country’s case, Qorvis has tried to set a conciliatory tone with the outside world. In response to the UNESCO controversy, Qorvis issued a press statement in English highlighting Equatorial Guinea’s commitment to "improve itself and contribute to the international community." A subsequent press statement noted: "There exists a great deal of misperception about Equatorial Guinea, an issue that is partly our fault since we have not always responded to inaccuracies that have appeared in the international press or have been perpetuated by our critics. This will now change. We now ask that the international community and media give us a second look and chance to explain what is occurring within our nation."
But officials in Equatorial Guinea had already issued their own press release on the matter in Spanish. It said the government was "tired, bored, and frustrated" by the attacks on the country from individuals who "would not even know where to find our country on a map."
"We have no doubt," it went on, "that the entities that created this controversy are showing their true colonialist, discriminatory, racist and prejudiced identity, by not accepting that an African president can confer an award of this kind."