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Equatorial Guinea Is Everything Wrong With U.S. Foreign Policy

Washington can’t keep getting fooled by dictators.

By , the founding director of the pro-democracy nonprofit organization Vanguard Africa, and , the executive director of EG Justice, a nonprofit that promotes human rights and democratic values in Equatorial Guinea.
Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang attends the Paris Peace Forum.
Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang attends the Paris Peace Forum.
Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang attends the plenary session of the Paris Peace Forum in Paris on Nov. 12, 2019. Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

In late September, the world’s longest-ruling dictator,­­­­ Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, announced that he would again stand for office in the country’s Nov. 20 elections. Already 80 years old, Obiang is Africa’s second-oldest president, trailing only his authoritarian neighbor in Cameroon, Paul Biya, who came to power three years after Obiang’s coup in 1979.

Since Obiang’s surprise announcement—which moved the country’s elections up by one year—more than 100 individuals, including lawyers, judges, and civil society and political opposition activists, have been arbitrarily detained. Some regime critics have been tortured by members of Obiang’s security apparatus. And just this past week, it was reported that at least five opposition members were murdered following a raid on the home of a dissident political leader by state security forces. These are all-too-frequent occurrences in Equatorial Guinea, which are talked about in hushed tones domestically and barely, if ever, register internationally.

Conveniently, just a few days before announcing his seventh run for the presidency, Obiang signed a new criminal code that purports to abolish the death penalty. This was no accident. In fact, it was likely by design, a move straight from the dictator’s handbook: Flood the zone with seemingly “historical and memorable” news, collect the global accolades, and then move swiftly to consolidate political power by crushing all opposing voices.

In late September, the world’s longest-ruling dictator,­­­­ Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, announced that he would again stand for office in the country’s Nov. 20 elections. Already 80 years old, Obiang is Africa’s second-oldest president, trailing only his authoritarian neighbor in Cameroon, Paul Biya, who came to power three years after Obiang’s coup in 1979.

Since Obiang’s surprise announcement—which moved the country’s elections up by one year—more than 100 individuals, including lawyers, judges, and civil society and political opposition activists, have been arbitrarily detained. Some regime critics have been tortured by members of Obiang’s security apparatus. And just this past week, it was reported that at least five opposition members were murdered following a raid on the home of a dissident political leader by state security forces. These are all-too-frequent occurrences in Equatorial Guinea, which are talked about in hushed tones domestically and barely, if ever, register internationally.

Conveniently, just a few days before announcing his seventh run for the presidency, Obiang signed a new criminal code that purports to abolish the death penalty. This was no accident. In fact, it was likely by design, a move straight from the dictator’s handbook: Flood the zone with seemingly “historical and memorable” news, collect the global accolades, and then move swiftly to consolidate political power by crushing all opposing voices.

This is a trick that Obiang has played multiple times and one that keeps working on U.S. government officials. For decades, the Obiang regime has promised and then failed to enact substantive reforms, choosing instead to prioritize surface-level improvements whose only real impact are the headlines that are generated in Western media outlets.

The United States has consistently been one of Obiang’s staunchest diplomatic and financial backers despite nearly a half century of serious human rights abuses, a clearly oppressive autocratic regime, and the fierce repression of basic freedoms that has destabilized a nation and robbed its people of free will. In fact, U.S. foreign direct investment to Equatorial Guinea has actually increased since 2016 and steadily during the Biden administration, totaling nearly $1 billion today. A year ago, Obiang even received a high-level U.S. delegation composed of senior Biden administration officials. Obiang has also been a routine guest inside the White House.

The United States, of course, has long boasted of supporting democracy and its defenders beyond American borders. In August, U.S. President Joe Biden identified three main priorities that would guide his time in office: “fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights.”

In many nations, including Equatorial Guinea, citizens are both skeptical and jaded. There are few countries in which the disparity between U.S. rhetoric and action is so stark. And it is precisely this void in which tyrants like Obiang deftly operate, becoming more ruthless and emboldened over time as that chasm inevitably widens.

There are two principal reasons for this gap between democratic rhetoric and realpolitik when it comes to Equatorial Guinea. The first is simple: oil and continued U.S. access to it.

Many of the world’s biggest energy companies—such as ExxonMobil, Marathon Oil, Hess, and Noble Energy—have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the country, helping to build a multibillion-dollar economy that is entirely dependent on petrodollars in the hands of a kleptocratic regime that plunders with impunity while its citizens remain among the poorest in Africa. These corporations have constituted the basis for a U.S. foreign policy inextricably linked to so-called energy security. And, as one of us argued back in 2017, when former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson was appointed U.S. secretary of state, energy security has too often trumped important efforts to safeguard human rights, democracy, and anti-corruption.

The second reason is perhaps less obvious: the role of China and its aggressive military and economic expansion well beyond its traditional sphere of influence.

Indeed, worsening an already bleak situation in Equatorial Guinea, China has identified the country as a prime location for its first-ever Atlantic military base, which alarmed U.S. officials and prompted the high-level government visit last October, the centerpiece of which was to discuss “maritime security.” Relatedly, Obiang signed a $2 billion infrastructure pact with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. And Chinese companies have signed a preliminary contract to build Equatorial Guinea’s first oil refinery.

This strengthened economic foothold, aided by a robust military presence, will have a profoundly negative impact on Equatorial Guinea’s already dire state. For example, studies have shown that when Chinese aid to an African country increases, state violence also rises. This outlook is further complicated by Obiang’s likely successor as president, his son and Vice President Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, who is a poster boy for corruption and plunder—not to mention a globe-trotting criminal.

The United States, of course, understands the importance of a possible Chinese military base in Equatorial Guinea, citing it as a national security threat. This is why the U.S. Navy—in both 2021 and 2022—conducted visits to the strategic city of Bata under the convenient guise of “building our partnership.” These high-level visits followed a 12-year period in which the Navy conducted a total of zero visits to any of Equatorial Guinea’s naval bases.

Herein lies the issue: Although the U.S. government’s stated goals—including in Biden’s recently unveiled Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa—are to prioritize democracy and human rights, U.S. officials only seem to act when their economic or military prowess is threatened. This reactive and shortsighted preference has hamstrung U.S. foreign policy for decades, particularly when it comes to Africa. By taking a more proactive stance on confronting authoritarianism—and the corruption and human rights abuses that inevitably result—the U.S. government can work to uphold the ideals and achieve the policy outcomes that have been clearly laid out by the Biden administration as well as those which came before it.

At the domestic level, promoting human rights in Equatorial Guinea translates to forcefully condemning gross violations as they occur in real time—like today. The killings as well as reports of torture and arrests of civil society activists, members of the opposition group Ciudadanos por la Innovación, lawyers, prosecutors, and judges should be publicly condemned as an outrageous assault on the rule of law. Importantly, these transgressions by the Obiang regime should be sufficient enough to justify disinviting the autocrat from attending the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which will take place in December and be hosted by Biden. U.S. travel bans are, in fact, mandatory when the U.S. State Department has credible information on corruption or human rights abuses. Both categories clearly apply to Obiang—this is apparent every year in the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

The Biden administration could also establish a governance reform fund, using a significant portion of the proceeds forfeited to the U.S. Justice Department in a case against the U.S.-based assets of Equatorial Guinea’s vice president. Doing so would allow the U.S. government to undertake real actions that support its rhetoric by substantively investing resources to both encourage and support independent civil society participation in the areas of human rights protection, anti-corruption, and the rule of law.

There is precedent for the United States using the recovered proceeds of corruption—as in the case of Nigeria just this year—to establish funds dedicated toward improving the lives of the citizens who are victims of state corruption. Doing so would also fulfil a long-standing pledge by the United States to use recovered proceeds of corruption to benefit harmed populations—a key part of the principles adopted at the U.S.-hosted Global Forum on Asset Recovery in 2017. Strategically pivoting in this way and doing so consistently moving forward will rebuild popular trust in the American government—in both Equatorial Guinea and globally—by instilling a belief that its ideals are not empty words but instead concrete goals backed up by action.

The real national security threat in the long term is not China flexing its muscles in faraway nations like Equatorial Guinea. It is the United States retreating in a manner that causes people worldwide—especially those persevering under authoritarian repression—to view American leadership as hypocritical at best or as entirely untrustworthy at worst.

Democratic backsliding is on the rise globally, a trend that has been evident for nearly two decades, and it is long past time for the United States to rise to the occasion and make good on its promises to protect human rights and democracy with action. In Equatorial Guinea, the United States can and should stand on those principles.

Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of the pro-democracy nonprofit organization Vanguard Africa. Twitter: @Smith_JeffreyT

Tutu Alicante is the executive director of EG Justice, a nonprofit that promotes human rights and democratic values in Equatorial Guinea.

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