The discovery of large oil reserves in the mid-1990s has brought about dramatic change to Equatorial Guinea. One of the world’s poorest countries quickly became one of the richest; its per capita income is now second only to Luxembourg’s. But government corruption has kept most of this wealth from the people, who still live as they did hundreds of years ago, more often than not on the edge of poverty if not right in it. The government’s human-rights record is abysmal, with little hope of reform.
Rule by force is nothing new in Equatorial Guinea. The Pygmies who originally inhabited the mainland now occupy only small pockets in the north. Starting in the 12th century, Bantu tribes, including the Bubi, came to the mainland. It’s believed that somewhere around the 17th century the Fang, a branch of the Beti, moved in and quickly became dominant through war and intermarriage. The Bubi are said to have fled to Bioko to escape the Fang (though other legends have it that the Bubi were indigenous to the island). The Fang still dominate, now institutionalised through military force.
Europeans made their first contact on the island of Anobón, which was visited by the Portuguese in 1470. Portugal subsequently settled Anobóón and the other islands in the Gulf of Guinea (Bioko, São Tomé and Príncipe). In the 18th century Bioko, Anobón and parts of the mainland were traded to Spain in exchange for regions in Latin America. Bioko subsequently became an important base for slave-trading for several European nations during the early 19th century, and later a naval base for England, which by then was trying to stop the slave trade. Cocoa plantations were started on the island in the late 19th century, making Malabo Spain’s most important possession in equatorial Africa.
On the mainland, the Fang made foreign occupation attempts a dangerous venture, but they were forced to retreat from the coastal region during the centuries of slave trading by the British, Dutch and French. With the abolition of slavery they once again reoccupied the coast.
It wasn’t until 1959 that Spain granted Africans full citizenship. By that time, a nationalist movement was already well underway. Equatorial Guinea attained independence in October 1968 under the presidency of Macias Nguema. Several months after independence, relations with Spain deteriorated rapidly when it was discovered that Equatorial Guinea had almost no foreign currency reserves. The new government declared a state of emergency, setting the stage for a brutal, 10-year dictatorship. Thousands of people were tortured and executed, or beaten to death in the forced-labour camps of the mainland. Much of the violence was tribally motivated, and Bubis were particularly targeted. By the time Nguema’s regime was finally toppled in 1979, only a third of the 300, 000 Guineans who lived there at independence still remained.
With the country in a mess and bankrupt, even Nguema’s closest colleagues began to suspect that he was insane. In August 1979, Nguema was toppled by his nephew, Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who had his uncle executed a month later. Obiang continues to rule to this day, and has carried on human-rights abuses.
In 2004 Sir Mark Thatcher, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s son, was arrested for helping to plan an alleged plot to overthrow Obiang and take over the oil-rich nation. Though he got off with a fine, South African mercenaries accused of taking part in the conspiracy have been imprisoned in the country ever since.
Oil is still the name of the game in Equatorial Guinea. And with the US relying increasingly on sources outside the Middle East for fuel, the country is bound to be crawling with Americans and cash for some time. Perversely, Equatorial Guinea still ranks near the bottom on the most recent UN Human Development Index. The US government’s 2006 Human Rights Report reported torture, arbitrary arrest, judicial corruption, child labour, forced labour, and severe restrictions on freedoms of speech and press, and while Obiang stores up tens of millions of dollars in US bank accounts, most of his citizens still live below the poverty rate (most of the 500, 000 subjects subsist on less than a dollar a day).