African Dictatorships and Double
[Teodoro Obiang Nguema
Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea]
by Stephen Zunes
www.antiwar.com/, July 2, 2008
The Bush administration has justifiably
criticized the Zimbabwean regime of liberator-turned-dictator
Robert Mugabe. It has joined a unanimous UN Security Council resolution
condemning the campaign of violence unleashed upon pro-democracy
activists and calling for increased diplomatic sanctions in the
face of yet another sham election. In addition, both the House
and the Senate have passed strongly worded resolutions of solidarity
with the people of Zimbabwe in support of their struggle for freedom
However, neither the Republican administration
nor the Democratic-controlled Congress is sincerely concerned
about human rights and democratic elections as a matter of principle.
Rather, they are more likely acting out of political expediency.
Despite claims of support for the advancement of democracy, the
United States continues to support other African dictatorships
that are as bad as or even worse than that of Zimbabwe.
Indeed, the United States currently provides
economic aid and security assistance to such repressive African
regimes as Swaziland, Congo, Cameroon, Togo, Chad, Cote d'Ivoire,
Rwanda, Gabon, Egypt, and Tunisia. None of these countries holds
free elections, and all have severely suppressed their political
The Worst Abuser
Among the worst of these African tyrannies
has been the regime of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial
Guinea. Obiang has been in power even longer than the 28-year
reign of Mugabe and, according to a recent article in the British
newspaper The Independent, makes the Zimbabwean dictator "seem
stable and benign" by comparison. Obiang originally seized
power in a 1979 coup by murdering his uncle, who had ruled the
country since its independence from Spain in 1968. Under his rule,
Equatorial Guinea nominally allowed the existence of opposition
parties as a condition of receiving foreign aid in the early 1990s.
But the four leading candidates withdrew from the last presidential
election in December 2002 in protest of irregularities in the
voting process and violence against their supporters. In that
election, Obiang officially received more than 97 percent of the
vote (down from 99.5 percent in the previous election.)
Though the U.S. State Department acknowledged
that the election was "marred by extensive fraud and intimidation,"
the Congress and the administration devoted none of the vehement
condemnation that was so evident after the recent, similarly marred
election process in Zimbabwe.
One major reason for the difference in
response is oil. The development of vast oil reserves over the
past decade has made Equatorial Guinea one of the wealthiest countries
in Africa in terms of per capita gross domestic product. Virtually
all of the oil revenues, however, goes to Obiang and his cronies.
The dictator himself is worth an estimated $1 billion, making
him the wealthiest leader in Africa; his real estate holdings
include two mansions in Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of the country's population lives
on only a few dollars a day, and nearly half of all children under
five are malnourished. The country's major towns and cities lack
basic sanitation and potable water, while conditions in the countryside
are even worse.
During his most recent visit to Washington
in 2006, Obiang was warmly received by Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice, who praised the dictator as "a good friend" of
the United States. Not once during their joint appearance did
she mention the words "human rights" or "democracy."
At the same press conference, Obiang praised his regime's "extremely
good relations with the United States" and his expectation
that "this relationship will continue to grow in friendship
and cooperation." None of the assembled reporters raised
any questions about the regime's notorious human rights record
or its lack of democracy, instead using the opportunity to ask
Secretary Rice questions about the alleged threat from Iran.
In 2002, the dictator met with President
George W. Bush in New York to discuss military and energy security
issues. He followed up in 2004 with meetings with then-Secretary
of State Colin Powell and then-Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham.
Equatorial Guinea receives U.S. government
funding and training through the International Military Education
and Training program (IMET). In addition, the private U.S. firm
Military Professional Resources Incorporated - founded by former
senior Pentagon officials who cite the regime's friendliness to
U.S. strategic and economic interests - plays a key role in the
country's internal security apparatus. Furthermore, as a result
of Obiang's understandable lack of trust in his own people, soldiers
from Morocco - one of America's closest African allies - have
served for decades in a number of important security functions,
including the role of presidential guards.
Maintaining close ties with such a notorious
ruler has led even conservative Republicans like Frank Ruddy,
who served as President Ronald Reagan's ambassador to Equatorial
Guinea in the mid-1980s, to denounce the Bush administration for
being "big cheerleaders for the government - and it's an
Though the Chinese have also recently
begun investing in the country's oil sector, U.S. companies ExxonMobil,
Amerada Hess, Chevron/Texaco, and Marathon Oil have played the
most significant role. A report by the International Monetary
Fund notes that U.S. oil companies receive "by far the most
generous tax and profit-sharing provisions in the region."
Congressional hearings recently revealed how U.S. oil companies
paid hundreds of millions of dollars destined to state treasuries
directly into the dictator's private bank accounts. A Senate report
faulted U.S. oil companies for making "substantial payments
to, or entering into business ventures with," government
officials and their family members.
The irony of the relative silence of Congress
and the Bush administration regarding the human rights abuses
and the undemocratic nature of Obiang's regime is that, due to
the critical role of U.S. economic investment and security assistance,
the United States has far more leverage on the government of Equatorial
Guinea than it does on the government of Zimbabwe. As a result,
Americans can feel self-righteous in their condemnation of a regime
in Zimbabwe with which the United States has little leverage while
continuing to support an even more repressive regime over which
the United States could successfully exert pressure if it chose
to do so.
This does not mean the United States should
have waited until it first ends its support of Obiang and other
African dictatorships before joining the rest of the international
community in condemning the repression in Zimbabwe. However, as
long as the United States maintains such blatant double standards,
U.S. credibility as a defender of human rights and free elections
is seriously compromised and thereby plays right into the hands
of autocrats and demagogues like Robert Mugabe.