My friend Tutu Alicante received his J.D. from the University of Tennessee before earning his LL.M. from Columbia Law School in 2004. Upon graduating from Columbia Law, Alicante received an Echoing Green fellowship which enabled him to found EG Justice, the only human rights organization focused exclusively on his native Equatorial Guinea. As Executive Director of EG Justice, Alicante works daily to promote freedom of information and the press, the rule of law, human rights and dignity, and transparency. I recently asked him six questions about the situation in Equatorial Guinea and US support for the blood-soaked Obiang dictatorship.
1. I’ve been writing about Equatorial Guinea for more than 20 years and unfortunately there never seems to be much good news. I visited the county in 2002 and the “elected” dictator Teodoro Obiang was in power — and he still is today and has been since 1979. Has the country become any more democratic in recent years or has Obiang just consolidated his control?
Equatorial Guinea has not become more democratic. While I cannot say that Obiang has consolidated his control, I would posit that political and economic power have remained tightly controlled by a small group of people in Obiang’s and First Lady Constancia’s inner circle. Old age and related diseases have compelled Obiang to adopt a less strenuous schedule, making way for his son, Vice President Teodorin, to increasingly assume more ceremonial and real power. This is allowing a slow but steady shift in the composition of the power brokers. So, yes, political power is as centralized as ever, but the old man finds himself increasingly resigned to the position of the Godfather, the aging patriarch at the top of the organized crime dynasty aware that someone else will have to continue his legacy.
2. Who’s in line for succession? Last I checked it was the immensely corrupt Teodorin. Is that still the case?
The presidential family in Equatorial Guinea represents the textbook definition for authoritarian kleptocracy. Teodorin, inept, drug addict and playboy son, is definitely his mother’s pick for dynastic perpetuation. Currently, while we are having this conversation, and while the people of Equatorial Guinea are about to observe 60 days since the tragic blasts that killed hundreds of people in the span of a few minutes, Teodorin is in the Bahamas, posting from a yacht, on Instagram and Tic Toc, videos and pictures of scantily-clad samba dancers flaunting their assets for his entertainment. Yet, this is the person that even the United States—who brought an asset forfeiture case against him—has resigned to the fact that will succeed in the throne and continue guaranteeing access to oil and gas concessions to US oil companies.
3. What are key recent developments in EG recently?
The tragic blasts in the city of Bata that killed over one hundred people–mostly children– injured thousands and destroyed thousands of homes, is only the latest example of the Obiang family’s reckless disregard for the lives of the people of Equatorial Guinea, and a manifestation of a completely rotten system. I place the blame squarely on the Obiang family, because Obiang, according to the Constitution, is the Chief of the Army; Teodorin, is the Vice President in charge of Defense and National Security, and Obiang’s brother-in-law, Victoriano Bibang Nsue Okomo, is the Minister of National Defense. These are three individuals who knew that explosives and dynamite were store at the armory in Nkoatoma, Bata. They knew, or should have known that when not properly stored, explosives can be detonated. They had constructive notice that an explosion in an area densely populated by civilians (or anyone) could lead to numerous deaths and massive destructions.
But, as with this family response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and with anything that requires actual governance, the Obiang family has made it clear that they are accountable to no one. They act with complete impunity. So, not a single person has been called by the Parliament of judicial authorities to testify or explain the causes and/or consequences of one of the most devastating non-war related explosions to have rocked through an African nation in recent memory. Hundreds of families are still homeless and scores of children have been left orphaned and without government support for strangers who are caring for these kids.
Normally, I would be talking about the disastrous government response to the coronavirus pandemic, I would be going on and on about the police brutality, the arrests and torture of desperate and vulnerable people who—faced with starving to death, due to the stringent COVID restrictions without any government assistance—venture onto the streets in search of food for their hungry children. But, sadly it is urgent that we find solutions to the gross negligence and ineptitude that led to the Bata explosions, and the horrific response to the tragedy by the government. My blood boils when I read the UN and US praises of the government’s handling of this situation.
4. US oil companies have historically been major beneficiaries of Obiang’s rule, and his key supporters. Is that still the case? How deeply embedded are they with his regime?
Indeed, that is still the case. Oil and gas are the primary game in town, and corporations with the desire and tools to produce and market the oil, while turning a blind eye to what Obiang and his family do with the revenues, remain key enablers of the regime. Hess and Exxon have apparently signaled a desire to sell their assets and leave. Cosmos, on the other hand, seem interested in finding ways to work with the devil, while avoiding getting soiled by the devil’s excrement. The moment of reckoning might come when Obiang’s star is finally extinguished and oil companies must deal with a volatile Teodorin. Would they stay and try to accommodate the playboy’s insatiable craving for luxury toys, parties, and narcotics? Alternatively, would they finally find the perfect alibi to disentangle themselves from a family-run mafia?
5. The US government has talked about promoting human rights in Equatorial Guinea for decades, but, predictably, that has taken a total back seat to friendship based on oil and the privileged position U.S. companies have in the country. How important to Obiang is U.S. support?
Despite the substantial presence of China and Russia in Equatorial Guinea, and despite the cultural ties with Spain and monetary bonds with France, I believe the US remains Obiang’s preferred ally. In addition to the access to revenues generated by the major oil multinationals, good standing with the US grants dictators like Obiang a certain degree of legitimacy globally, that is otherwise difficult to obtain. Obiang knows it’s hard to get access to IMF loans and other international perks. And Obiang is willing to pay hefty fees to Qorvis Communications to grease the US-EG relationship. This is why it might be interesting to see what happens if the Biden Administration decides against extending an invitation to the Obiangs to the Democracy Summit in Washington DC.
6. Has any US administration heavily pressed Obiang to allow for more democracy? How do you see the Biden administration acting? And how did Trump deal with Equatorial Guinea?
The Trump Administration did not do anything for Equatorial Guinea. It was considered a “s…hole country” too far away from Russia and Ukraine to matter. Thus, the Biden Administration has a clean slate, an opportunity to support real democratic reform, including the creation of an enabling space for independent media and civil society participation, judicial reform, and pushing for verifiable improvements in the electoral apparatus, and stand against authoritarian kleptocracy and human rights violations. If a targeted sanctions regime can be created to ensure that corrupt politicians and human rights violators from Honduras can be held accountable, or can see their US assets confiscated, I struggle to understand how a similar approach cannot be explored for Equatorial Guinea, a country that ranks as “not free” and much lower than Honduras on the Freedom House annual reports. Equatorial Guinea also ranks lower that the Central American nation on the Corruption Perception Index published annually by Transparency International. Thus far, there have been US Ambassadors that have taken an interest in defending some human rights tenets, or protecting political and social activists; but, I cannot say that the US has ever had a clear, coherent, and sustained foreign policy towards EG, with human rights, democracy and transparency being the paramount leitmotifs of US engagement. EG’s oil has proven to be too attractive to allow most politicians to see EG for what is truly is, an organized criminal syndicate, an authoritarian kleptocracy.