Sunday, December 6, 2009


Despite extensive PR spending and business deals with western nations one of Africa's worst dictators remains largely ignored, and for a good reason, his human rights record is so blatantly horrific the most gifted PR specialist could not defend it, affording human rights activists a unique opportunity to disrupt the tacit support of their government for a brutal thug.

Following the press release posted on Equatorial Guinea's website where Ambassador Purificación Angue Ondo proclaims "[h]is Excellency President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been re-elected. . .with 95.37 percent of the vote," is a notice that the statement was "distributed by Qorvis Communications, LLC and Cassidy & Associate." While President Obiang is not as popular in Washington as the official results of the former Spanish colony's November 29 poll suggest he is at home, so popular in fact that he won 103% of the votes at some precincts in the 2002 election, the west's supine reaction to the election contrasts sharply to the reaction to Zimbabwe's 2008 Presidential contest.

Obiang's journey to power began as the Spanish sought a leader they could control after they left their African possession. They settled on Obiang's uncle, a man handpicked for his stupidity. Obiang assumed a senior military position within the new government. As governor of the notorious Black Beach Prison he celebrated his new status with night long 'torture parties', today opponents accuse him of cannibalism. When one of his uncle's killing sprees targeted close relatives the ruling family moved against him. Obiang led the coup, executed his uncle, and assumed power. Obiang still rules thirty years later, guarded by foreign mercenaries, whom are thought to be more loyal than the military.

During the reign of Obiang's uncle the country was so poor dissidents had to be garroted to conserve bullets. A third of the population either fled or were killed. The paltry sums the government earned from declining agricultural revenues barely put it on the map. In 1994 the American ambassador John Bennett, an ardent critic of Obiang, departed after receiving death threats. The U.S embassy shut down two years later, weeks later a huge oil field was discovered. The man locally dubbed Africa's worst dictator, and there was much competition for that title, was out of the political wilderness. In 2003 the Bush administration reestablished an embassy in the capital of Malibo, on land rented from a senior regime official.

Equatorial Guinea was open for business. The form director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, General Henry Soyster, now in the private world, defended business dealing with Obiang's police state. "They do have a poor human rights record," said the General "but so did the Nazi government, and we did pretty well with Germany after World War II." Reporters without borders might rank Equatorial Guinea's press freedom bellow those thriving democracies of Sudan and Libya, but the nation's output of 450,000 barrels of oil equivalent a day mean Equatorial Guinea should now be viewed as, in the word's of its President, a "democracy in development." A view that could be certainly seconded by its PR firm in Washington.

The dictator's government, previously unconcerned by its international image, began spending millions of dollars each year on U.S PR firms. That was small change for a ruler whose multi-billion dollar oil fortune makes him one of the world's wealthiest men. In theory Equatorial Guinea's people should have an income on par with, or above, that of the U.S or western Europe. The small nation of 600,000 takes in billions of dollars each year in oil money. In practice only a select few benefit while most of the population does not have running water or access to basic health care. That small investment, coupled with the vast oil reserves, bought Obiang new prestige. The man described as a god and a cannibal in state media was described as a "friend" by the American Secretary of State.

"For a long time our relationship with Equatorial Guinea revolved around human rights," one oil company official said, ". . .now that the energy picture is changing, that introduces something to balance out the dialogue." Former American Ambassador Frank Ruddy put it more bluntly, the U.S "for reasons of realpolitik treated a dictator.. with the greatest respect." Under the current arrangement Obiang give the U.S oil companies free access, they give him a quarter of the proceeds, and the American political establishment ignores the African nation that makes Zimbabwe look like a functioning democracy.

Neither side is satisfied with the arrangement. It is one of pragmatism, not love. The American oil companies are fed up with the detrimental corruption. Obiang, while politely ignored by the U.S media, does not have a positive image. Unlike other dictators supported by the U.S there is no ideological commitment to his regime. Those feelings are certainly mutual. Obiang appreciated the patronage of the world's only superpower, but he would gladly find a new benefactor if it suited his interests. The Chinese are already developing their interests in the nation and would be glad to supplant the role of the U.S if afforded the opportunity. That makes the Obiang government particularly vulnerable to pressure from western activists.

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