Earlier this month I traveled to Equatorial Guinea for a week. This is of course not a lot of time, but I learned a lot, as one tends to when one’s base level of knowledge is low. (I also served on a human rights panel with two ambassadors and the Equatoguinean second vice prime minster. #ThingsThatWillNeverHappenAgain)
There are few good sources of information on EG; the best I have come across are Equatorial Guinea Justice reports and Economist Intelligence Unit reports [gated]. In the spirit of increasing the amount of information people have about EG and procrastinating on grant applications I thought I would put together some of my notes. Here they are.
- The level of corruption during elections is high. (i.e. It’s not just things happening before the election that bias the playing field for candidates. The technical elections are themselves also corrupted.) One person told me that in his rural community on the mainland the community was offered either elections or a government-sponsored party. The community chose the party, so there was no voting.
- The president interferes in political party organization. The president has appointed or approved the heads of virtually every party in the country. There is one very credible opposition party and one somewhat credible opposition party. The somewhat credible party has two sides: one that is full of PDGE (ruling party) cronies and has a head who was appointed by the president, and one side that is more grassroots.
- An opposition party person told me, “the only right we have is the right to exist.” These parties are harassed in every other possible way. An issue I heard about repeatedly is that extended family of opposition party members have a hard time getting government jobs; jobs are a tool of oppression. The government uses every trick in the book to disrupt opposition party activity. They will call parallel meetings that coincide with opposition meetings to drain attendance. They will increase the price of renting a room that a party was planning to rent.
- There is incredible government predation on private businesses, especially small businesses owned by Equatoguineans and West African immigrants. I heard a story of a women’s rights group that tried to raise money for itself by building a well and charging people for access. As soon as local government people saw that they were profiting from this, they took over the well. Nigerians, Senegalese, Malians, and Cameroonians will sometimes stay inside for days if they suspect there will be a raid on immigrants in a market, forgoing several days’ wages.
- It’s unclear whether things have improved over the past decade. Some say it has, that the country is more open, that the increasingly common “conference tourism” is a meaningful symbol of something. Others say the only thing that has changed is that the government has gotten smarter and more calculating about how to continue to oppress people without raising an outcry from the international community. After decades of dictatorship a regime no longer needs to beat people up on the streets to scare them into submission. There are vivid collective memories of awful things the government has done to suppress protests.
- The domestic intelligence situation has become very sophisticated. Village or neighborhood council members report to the state about ongoings in their community, and this reporting is required for them to keep their jobs.
- Obiang appoints virtually everyone who has a government job. People who work for government are afraid of losing their job so everyone tows the government line.
- The government frequently jails human rights advocates for a few days and then releases them. The government frequently prevents people from leaving the country to travel to conferences.
- It’s unclear the degree to which international NGOs could operate in EG, but I think there is some space for this, and the value added of any international group in EG would be huge. Local groups currently operate with virtually no external funding. To the best of my knowledge, besides a biodiversity NGO, no international NGO operates in EG. Some say the lack of an international NGO presence is because of inaccurate perceptions that EG would be closed to this. My sense is that an international NGO would be able to operate if they did not try to do everything by the book. e.g. Registering NGOs sounds like a nightmare. If an international NGO just started operations and worked in other ways by the book, but did not try to register, it would probably be possible to operate.
- Obiang appointed his son (the notorious one) as second vice president this year. This position does not exist constitutionally; there should just be one vice president. One interpretation for this decision is that Obiang wants to groom his son for succession, but his son is in fact not very popular domestically. He is seen as flaunting and not sufficiently sharing his wealth.
- EG is extremely isolated by language. Even most educated people in EG do not speak English or French. Most people in Malabo speak Spanish and a local language, meaning that when they are invited to conferences in other West African countries they often can’t fully participate. There is a huge opportunity for EG civil society groups to get connected to groups in Latin America.
- There is intentional and unintentional brain drain from civil society. Sometimes the government coopts civil society leaders into government. In other situations, when people have private sector jobs they are prevented from partaking in any other activities, even volunteering. Thus taking a job with an oil company would preclude someone from NGO work. In a part of the world where many people who work for NGOs have other jobs that actually pay the bills, this is a serious constraint.
- There is great distrust throughout society due to a fear of informants. This impedes civil society collaboration.
- Restrictions on civil society activity are arbitrary. Sometimes groups get away with things and sometimes they don’t.
- The government will occasionally work to defame individual civil society activists who have annoyed them.
- The government is very good at doing activities that create a facade of support for Equatoguineans, when in fact the product of these efforts can be targeted to reward ruling party supporters. An example is “social housing,” very nice housing the government funds and then distributes to allies. African immigrants find this housing very attractive, as it protects them from government predation. The implication is if you live there, you have government support. Immigrants often pay top price to rent units from government allies who officially received the housing. Another example of this phenomena is a fund the first lady has that is used to send people overseas for medical treatment. Why invest in clinics when you can use that money to target help at only the sick people who are your allies?
- The EG government is not diligent about requiring that civil society groups register funds they receive from foreigners. It would be quite easy for an international NGO that wanted to support local groups to get them funds.
- There are several individuals in EG who run local NGOs who are serious and would be eager collaborators with international groups on human rights issues. They are afraid, but not that afraid. They don’t want outside groups to make decisions about what activities are or are not safe for them to engage in.
If anyone reading this is interesting in extending their organization’s work to Equatorial Guinea and would like contacts, just let me know.