The World’s Most Respectable Criminal
On a June evening in 2004, Washington’s elite gathered at the Marriott hotel for a black-tie dinner in honour of Condoleezza Rice, currently the U. S. Secretary of State but then the national security adviser to President George W. Bush. Rice was to receive the Leon H. Sullivan International Diplomacy Award, an honour named after the black American minister who fought for human rights in Africa and around the world.
As Senator Hillary Clinton and others looked on, Rice began her acceptance speech by thanking a list of “distinguished guests.” First, was Rev. Sullivan’s daughter. Second, “President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea.”
The transcript does not record whether, at that moment, there were any gasps from the audience. Likely not. Few westerners have ever heard of Equatorial Guinea or its president, and those who have usually know it only as a tiny African nation with immense oil reserves that have attracted major oil companies, including ExxonMobil and Canada’s Nexen.
But if those assembled had known even a little about the decade of near-genocidal horror that swallowed the tragic country after it gained independence in 1968, they would certainly have snapped to attention. And if they had known the role President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo personally played in that horror, as well as the atrocities and corruption he and his regime continue to inflict on the nation, they might well have gasped when Rice thanked the distinguished guest for attending a lavish Washington dinner in memory of a human rights defender.
“There is not really a government” in Equatorial Guinea, says John Bennett, who witnessed Obiang’s operation up close when he served as U.S. ambassador to the tiny nation between 1991 and 1994. “There is an ongoing family criminal conspiracy. That’s what runs the country.”
The conspiracy began almost four decades ago, with a man named Francisco Macias Nguema Biyogo.
In the late 1960s, Spain came under pressure to relinquish Spanish Guinea, its sole colony in sub-Saharan Africa. Consisting of one big island — now known as Bioko — in the Gulf of Guinea, a scattering of small islands, and a small rectangle on mainland Africa, Spanish Guinea was an accident of European history that made little sense. But in 1968, this obscure backwater became a country.
In the first and only truly democratic election in Equatorial Guinea, an obscure civil servant, with a talent for saying what his audience wanted to hear, positioned himself as the leading nationalist and defeated a better-qualified candidate who advocated maintaining links with Spain. Francisco Macias became the first president of Equatorial Guinea.
Beneath the political images he created, Macias was a man besieged by demons. His father, a witch doctor, is believed to have murdered his brother. Macias failed the civil service exam three times and developed an inferiority complex that turned to a hatred of intellectuals so bitter he later banned the word “intellectual.” His hearing was impaired and late in life he slowly went blind.
Macias wrestled with nightmares, made decisions based on his nocturnal visions and often made baffling pronouncements such as his declaration in a 1967 speech that Adolf Hitler “was the saviour of Africa.” He once ordered his table to be set for eight people, then sat down in the empty room and had a lengthy conversation with ghosts. Macias further divorced his mind from reality by routinely smoking marijuana and drinking iboga, a traditional hallucinogen with effects similar to LSD.
Equatorial Guinea’s democracy lasted 145 days. The new president became “President for Life, Major-General of the National Armed Forces and Grand Master of Education, Science and Culture” but he was more commonly known as “the Unique Miracle.”
Originally, Macias drew his officials mainly from his tribe, known as the Fang, but as his paranoia grew, he filled all positions of power with his immediate clan, the Esangui. In effect, his extended family became the state.
Macias ordered priests in the heavily Roman Catholic country to praise him in sermons and tortured or drove into exile those who refused. Christian names were banned. Teachers were sacked and schools closed. To encourage the use of traditional African medicines, Macias fired doctors and nurses and shut hospitals. When people fled the country by water, he ordered every boat in the nation sold or destroyed and banned all citizens from the shoreline.
Increasingly demented, Macias ordered workers at the power plant of Malabo, the capital city, to stop using lubricating oil. He would keep the machinery going with magic, he promised. When the plant exploded, the city plunged permanently into darkness.
Inevitably, the economy plummeted. Agriculture collapsed. The regime responded by ordering mass forced labour but that did nothing to stop the spiral. Life became unbearable and thousands fled.
“From the middle of 1969 to 1979, about a quarter of the population was living outside the country,” says Randall Fegley, a professor at Pennsylvania State University and one of the few academic experts on Equatorial Guinea.
To maintain power amid the growing chaos, the regime deployed relentless terror. Random arrests and torture were routine. Public executions were commonplace. In one, “36 prisoners were taken outside, told to dig a trench and stand in it,” Fegley wrote in Equatorial Guinea: An African Tragedy. “The trench was then filled so that only the prisoners’ heads stuck out of the ground. The next day only two remained alive. Ants had eaten all but a bit of their victims’ heads and faces.”
During one mass hanging in a stadium, loudspeakers blared Mary Hopkins singing Those Were the Days.
Crimes like these are far from unknown in Africa, particularly the Africa of the 1970s when dictators like Uganda’s Idi Amin dominated the continent. But what set Macias’ Equatorial Guinea apart, says Fegley, is the totality of the slaughter. The regime didn’t just murder intellectuals and suspected opponents. It wiped out their families. Even entire villages.
No one is certain how many people died.
“I have seen estimates between 50,000 to 80,000 dead. I would tend to think it’s 65,000 or 70,000. This is out of a population of 380,000.” says Fegley. “It is proportionally much worse than Nazi-occupied Europe.”
In legal terms, Macias’s campaign of annihilation doesn’t qualify as genocide because it wasn’t intended to wipe out targeted ethnic groups. But it does qualify as a monstrous crime against humanity — one of the worst in history. By any measure, Macias’s name belongs alongside those of Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler and the other rulers of the 20th century who turned their states into killing machines.
And yet, aside from a few historians, Macias and his crimes are unknown today.
Part of the problem, Fegley feels, is the unwarranted “tendency to think small countries have small problems.” Equatorial Guinea’s Spanish connections also helped to bury the truth because journalists and academics that follow the Spanish-speaking world pay little heed to sub-Saharan Africa, while those who follow Africa rarely speak Spanish.
Perhaps most crucial was the decision by Spain’s then-fascist government, that had stormy relations with Macias, to ban any reporting on the country. Equatorial Guinea effectively vanished from the international media.
Governments and international organizations, however, did know about the horrors unfolding in the tiny country. They simply chose to ignore them. The Soviet, Cuban and Chinese governments all actively supported the Macias regime and showed no interest in its atrocities. The French government actively courted Macias in hopes of securing resource contracts and bringing Equatorial Guinea into the fold of French Africa. Various agencies of the United Nations were active on the ground but they, too, chose to say nothing. Even the United States showed no interest.
Only in 1979, when the regime was visibly crumbling and the country looked less like a modern nation than the set of the movie Apocalypse Now, were condemnations issued by the United Nations and the European Commission.
The end came when a visibly deranged Macias executed members of his own family. The ruling clan was shocked. One lieutenant-colonel — a nephew of Macias whose brother was among the executed — organized a coup and on Aug. 3, 1979, Macias was overthrown. After a quick show trial, the Unique Miracle was shot.
The nephew who led the coup was Teodoro Obiang. Now aged 63, Obiang is still the president of Equatorial Guinea. In the last few years, the country’s exploding oil wealth has drawn international media attention and stories about Obiang invariably mention that the president came to power by ousting his uncle. But these reports never mention what Obiang did prior to the coup, giving the impression that he had been an opponent of the regime.
In reality, Obiang was to Macias what Heinrich Himmler was to Adolf Hitler. “He was the regime’s enforcer,” says John Bennett.
Throughout most of Macias’s time in power, Lieut.-Col. Obiang was the military governor of Bioko island, which includes Malabo, the capital. Since Macias spent most of his time in his ancestral homeland on the mainland, Obiang was effectively in charge of the island.
Obiang was also the director of Blackbich Prison. And Blackbich was the very heart of the reign of terror.
In Blackbich, an array of tortures was routinely inflicted on political prisoners. Even the conditions of the prison were a form of torture. Victims were packed into holding cells without water, food or access to a latrine so that “urine and excrement covered the floors,” wrote Fegley. “Prisoners were kept naked and only let out of their cells for beatings, interrogations, Saturday night ‘dances’ or executions.”
The “dances” were a Blackbich ritual — every Saturday for at least four years — in which prisoners were taken out and ordered to sing a song of praise for Macias while dancing endlessly around a campfire. When a man got tired and stumbled, a guard would hit him with an iron bar heated red-hot in the coals of the fire. After five or six hours of this entertainment, the dancers would be reduced to staggering delirium and driven back inside.
The common method of execution in Blackbich involved pushing the condemned face-down and then smashing his skull with iron bars. Other prisoners, Fegley wrote, “would then clean up the blood, vomit and brain matter and the body was disposed of in an open pit.”
This was the institution governed by Teodoro Obiang. And according to Fegley, many sources indicate that Obiang personally supervised many of the atrocities committed in the prison.
“It would be very easy to prove that in the last half, or last four or five years, of the Macias regime, that he was guilty of a large number of murders and presided over what was clearly a torture centre,” says Fegley. “I’m sure that could be proved before that, but it’s definite in those last four or five years.”
These crimes fit the international law definition of crimes and humanity.
Obiang’s prominent role in the Macias regime was well-known at the time he seized power. But it was almost immediately erased from memory, both within Equatorial Guinea and around the world.
At Macias’s show trial, the deposed dictator was only charged with 157 murders chosen precisely because they did not implicate the coup-plotters. The countless other crimes of the regime were ignored.
After the trial, Obiang drew a curtain over the Macias years — a curtain that remains drawn to this day.
“That’s something that’s simply not discussed,” says Fegley. “He can’t afford to have the record examined.”
The world was only too willing to forget. After taking power, Obiang halted the mass murders and forced labour of the old regime and granted amnesty to political prisoners. Relieved that the madness was over, foreign officials rushed to embrace the new regime. King Juan Carlos of Spain dined in Malabo. The French ambassador personally tutored the president in French. In February 1981, Pope John Paul II visited and said Mass alongside a smiling Teodoro Obiang.
But Obiang had no intention of restoring democracy and freedom to his benighted country, and as the years passed, his rule became increasingly brutal.
Torture is “the normal means of investigation,” concluded a United Nations inspector in 2002. The 2004 U.S. State Department report on human rights in Equatorial Guinea noted that “senior government officials told foreign diplomats during the year that human rights do not apply to criminals and that torture of known criminals was not a human rights abuse.”
“Whenever you had political trials, the prisoners coming in would show signs of having been badly mistreated,” recalls John Bennett. “What they do with the wrists, for example, is not break it but stretch it inwards so badly the hand becomes like a seal flipper. You cannot even unzip your own pants to pee.” Another common torture is whipping the feet of the victim with a cable, which can render a man unable to walk for weeks. Some prisoners suffer mutilations, such as having bits of their ears cut off. “They have also fashioned flashlights that fit over the penis and are plugged into the wall. I’ve talked to people who have had that done to them. It’s just an incredible pain.”
While serving as ambassador, Bennett detailed what he was seeing in the State Department’s human rights report. He received a death threat he is convinced came from the ruling family.
Blackbich prison continues to function as a centre of torture and, occasionally, murder. The State Department also notes “credible reports” of female prisoners being gang-raped.
Victims cannot look to the judiciary for protection. Judges are nothing more than functionaries of the regime. Nor can they protest because there is no real free speech. There is not one bookstore or newsstand anywhere in the country, and almost all broadcast media are government-owned. In a rare interview with a foreign news agency, President Obiang defended his government by noting that there is a private radio station in the capital — although he neglected to mention the station is owned by his son.
Until oil revenues started to pour into the country in the mid-1990s, Obiang desperately needed foreign aid and courted donors by agreeing, at the beginning of the 1990s, to make Equatorial Guinea a multi-party, democratic republic. But it was all a sham. Those brave enough to stand in opposition to the regime are routinely harassed, arrested, beaten and tortured. Elections are rigged: In 2002, the government claimed 98 per cent of the electorate went to the polls and re-elected Obiang with 97.1 per cent of the vote.
In reality, power remains the monopoly of the president and his key ministers, who are all relatives. Two brothers and an uncle run the military and security forces. The president’s playboy son is the minister of forestry. John Bennett’s pungent description of the government as “an ongoing family criminal conspiracy” is not so much a rhetorical attack as it is a precise reflection of reality.
When the Citizen asked the Canadian department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade about its support of Nexen’s involvement in Equatorial Guinea, a spokesman had only this to say about human rights under Obiang: “The specific situation of human rights in Equatorial Guinea, while leaving a lot to be desired, is improving, as witnessed by the implementation (slower than expected but still progressing) of a seven-point protocol signed with the EU, whose efforts Canada has been actively promoting. The Embassy has never missed an opportunity to make representations with the authorities of Equatorial Guinea in respect to these issues.”
In fact, Canada has no embassy in Equatorial Guinea. Instead, the embassy in Gabon handles Canadian affairs in Equatorial Guinea — although that embassy was recently slated for closure.
Alex Vines, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, says there has been some improvement but the Canadian government’s picture is exaggerated.
“Things are gradually improving, if you compare the way things were 15 years ago with today. And if you are an EG watcher then you notice small things that are better than the year previously. But if you compare EG with even a number of its neighbours, then things become much more worrying. In terms of EG, it’s improved. In terms of global trends, it’s got a long way to go.”
Freedom House, a respected Washington non-governmental organization that tracks political and civil liberties around the world using a numerical rating system, is more pessimistic. Its data shows virtually no change in Equatorial Guinea over the past decade. U.S. State Department human rights reports over the same time also read like virtual duplicates, year after year.
The Canadian department of Foreign Affairs’ generous view of realities in Equatorial Guinea is typical of how international institutions and foreign governments deal with the Obiang regime.
The United Nations is making no effort to investigate Obiang’s crimes. In fact, he is treated as something of an elder statesman when he makes one of his frequent appearances in New York — as he did at the recent UN summit, where he took the opportunity to make a speech calling on the rich world to do more to end poverty in Africa. Human rights groups have paid more attention to Equatorial Guinea in the last few years, thanks to the increasing presence of American oil companies, but even they have essentially ignored Obiang’s actions in the Macias regime and there is no campaign to have him investigated and held to account for his crimes.
Equatorial Guinea maintains embassies in all the major countries of the world, including Spain, Russia and China. The United Kingdom’s foreign office has described British relations with the Obiang government as “cordial.” France is on even better terms, having largely succeeded in getting Obiang to align his country with French West Africa.
Although Canada lacks an embassy in Equatorial Guinea, there are plans to establish an honorary consul in Malabo. Canadian trade with Equatorial Guinea, which had been almost non-existent, is rising rapidly due to increasing oil imports: In 2004, the total value of imports to Canada was $341 million.
But by far the biggest stake in Equatorial Guinea belongs to the United States. American oil companies dominate the tiny country’s production, and Washington planners anticipate that Equatorial Guinea’s oil, along with other African sources, will satisfy a steadily growing share of American demand in the years ahead. Relations between the two countries reflect the importance of the relationship to both countries.
Teodoro Obiang has made closer ties with the United States a priority and Americans have been most welcoming of the president of the country commonly known in Washington as the “Kuwait of Africa.” Several years ago, President Bush met with Obiang at the United Nations and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell welcomed Obiang to Washington in 2004. No senior official has publicly said an unkind word about the Obiang regime.
Obiang’s son told journalist Peter Maass that he appreciated the Bush administration’s approach to his father’s government. “The United States, like China, is careful not to get into internal issues.”
The only serious note of discord in this harmonious relationship is the annual State Department human rights report, which is Congressionally mandated and prepared with considerable independence. Both sides politely ignore it.
“The State Department’s a disgrace on this issue,” says Frank Ruddy, U.S. ambassador to Equatorial Guinea from 1984 to 1988. “I was talking with somebody over there, whom I knew, a person who worked with me when I was over there, who was with the State Department and had a position in Equatorial Guinea. He told me our people could hear the screams of torture from some of these places. They know damned well what is happening and they are not taking any kind of strong action on it. They are a disgrace.”
Ruddy, a lawyer, feels one factor in Washington’s silence is China, which “is looking for all the oil it can get in Africa. And so you’ve got the defence department saying don’t make waves over there because we need that oil.”
Ruddy, a lawyer with Exxon before he became an ambassador, also believes “there’s probably pressure from the oil companies.”
Bennett agrees. When the former ambassador publicly criticized torture in Equatorial Guinea — the same criticism that drew a death threat — a senior executive with Houston-based Walter International confronted him, shouting that the accusations were false and insisting Bennett name his sources. Bennett refused, and “the company from that point on was highly critical of me in Washington and with other American oil companies. All in all, it was not a career-enhancing stance to maintain, but I did, as it was the truth.”
High-minded sentiments like that are often expressed in Washington power circles. But they are much less often acted on.
“We in this room,” Condoleezza Rice told the Washington elite in 2004, have “an obligation to help (Africans) achieve lasting liberty.” The human rights work of the late Leon Sullivan should be an inspiration, she said. “Americans must never excuse tyranny or corruption in Africa.”
The transcript notes Rice’s address was frequently interrupted by applause. One can only assume that Rice’s honoured guest, Teodoro Obiang, joined right in.