The Gambia’s ex-president Yahya Jammeh should feel quite at home in Equatorial Guinea as the guest of Africa’s longest serving and perhaps most kleptocratic dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mabasongo. Especially if allegations are true of Jammeh having pillaged the national treasury before fleeing via Senegal to asylum in Malabo.
But the claim that $11 million was taken by Jammeh pales into insignificance against the rampant looting indulged in by Obiang, his family and close associates. This tiny country, with a mainly desperately poor population of fewer than 760 000, has the highest per capita income in Africa, a classic example of why per capita incomes are no evidence of national wellbeing.
Like The Gambia, Equatorial Guinea is a minute relic of Europe’s scramble for, and colonial division of, Africa. And Jammeh’s new home is very much a product of a particularly brutal history of neglect.
Comprising essentially, the island of Bioko in the Bay of Biafra and a wedge of land — Rio Muni — sandwiched between what were the French colonies of Cameroun and Gabon, Equatorial Guinea was Spain’s only toehold in sub-Saharan Africa. Lying almost squarely astride the equator, this tiny outpost that includes a clutch of small islands, was fought over by the British and Portuguese and finally ceded to Spain some 200 years ago.
A malarial backwater of a decaying Spanish empire, it was, from the start, apparently detested as a posting by both colonial bureaucrats and the military. And military detachments were a constant presence to subdue and the local populations. The Bubi of Bioko did not take kindly to the seizure of their land any more than did the Fang on the mainland, but their resistance was crushed.
The Bubi, for the most part, retreated into the dense forests of their volcanic island home, so the Spanish authorities introduced Fang tribesmen to the island to do their bidding, which often included dealing with the rebellious Bubi. By 1939 and the outbreak of the second world war, a fascist regime under General Francisco Franco had shot itself to power in Spain with the aid of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. So when the “winds of change” began blowing through Africa in the wake of the war, Equatorial Guinea never felt so much as a light breeze.
Most of the world was even unaware of this Spanish dominated slice of Africa. But there was some pressure from the United Nations (UN) and, in 1959, Equatorial Guinea finally became an official colony.
Members of the notorious ‘black Guardia”, Franco’s political police, and resentful military conscripts continued to be posted to what was then called the island of Fernando Po and to Rio Muni. They maintained the repression that enabled some 6 000 or more Spanish settlers to live lives of relative ease.
But the cost of maintaining this colony was a major drain on the Spanish treasury. It produced cocoa, but by the 1960s the cocoa market had slumped and preliminary oil exploration had drawn a blank.
Franco agreed to UN supervised elections, and small groups of Guineans, many destined for security roles, were given hurried courses in Spain. With most of the Bubi apparently abstaining, Francisco Macias Nguema, known as El Gallo Rojo (The Red Rooster) scored a resounding victory as president and independence was scheduled for October 12, 1968.
Reinforcements were sent from Spain to a naval detachment in Bioko, machine gun posts were set up on the roads leading to the airport and no visitors were permitted to the island in the weeks leading up to independence day. By a mixture of bad luck and equally bad judgement I had been stranded on the island more than a month earlier and so was the only journalist present when what must be the lowest key independence celebration ever was concluded.
To a cacophony of boos from a crowd of several hundred Guineans, a nervous-looking honour guard of rifle toting sailors in dress whites presented ams as the Spanish flag was lowered. Then, to ragged cheers, the new flag of Equatorial Guinea was raised.
That was it. The sailors marched off and the crowd dispersed through the silent streets and shuttered shops of the little town. Within months, a colonial tyranny gave way to a homegrown one, with reports of summary executions, torture and detentions. Antanasio Ndongo, who had stood in the election against Macias and then became vice-president, reportedly died an horrendous death, allegedly at the hands of Macias.
Macias himself came to a sticky end in 1979 when his nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mabasongo led a military coup and made himself president, the position he still holds.
But the fortunes of this benighted land changed dramatically in 1995. The initial forecasts of the US oil companies were proved spectacularly wrong: oil and gas were discovered in such quantities that Equatorial Guinea became known as the Kuwait of Africa. Billions of dollars poured into the coffers of the state — and were funnelled directly into bank accounts of the new elite.
Given the reports over the years of Jammeh’s dictatorial behaviour, of the use by his security forces of assassination and torture, along with his apparently liberal use of the national treasury, he has perhaps found, in Equatorial Guinea, his ideal refuge.