Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Equatorial Guinea's political rights rating declined from 6 to 7 after authorizes conducted an unfair trial of many of the government's political opponents, jailed them, and then moved up by two months presidential elections that were neither free nor fair.
After initially appearing to be making steps toward improving its records on political and human rights, the government of Equatorial Guinea took several steps back in 2002. Authorities in March began rounding up members of the political opposition, claiming that a coup plot was underway. By May, 144 people had been detained. International human rights groups condemned the trial that followed in which 68 people were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 6 to 20 years. Among those convicted was Placido Miko, the prominent leader of the opposition Convergence for Social Democracy party, who was sentenced to 14 years. Defendants alleged that their statements were exacted under torture during incommunicado detention.
The mass arrests appeared to be an effort by the government of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo to clear the playing field ahead of presidential elections that were originally scheduled for February 2003. Obiang further consolidated the position of the ruling party by moving the elections up to December 2002. He won the election with nearly 100 percent of the vote. Four opposition candidates withdrew from the election at the last minute, citing irregularities and saying there was no chance of fairness.
Equatorial Guinea achieved independence in 1968 following 190 years of Spanish rule. It has since been one of the world's most tightly closed and repressive societies. President Obiang seized power in 1979 by deposing and murdering his uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema. Pressure from donor countries demanding democratic reforms prompted Obiang to proclaim a new "era of pluralism" in January 1992. Political parties were legalized and multiparty elections announced, but in practice Obiang and his clique wield all power.
The UN Human Rights Commission terminated the mandate of the special investigator for Equatorial Guinea in April 2002, saying it aimed instead to encourage the government to implement a national human rights action plan.
Equatorial Guinea is the continent's third-largest oil producer and boasts one of the highest figures for per capita gross domestic product in Africa. The oil sector has led to more jobs but the lives of most people have yet to change. U.S. oil companies have invested at least $5 billion in Equatorial Guinea since the mid-1990s. The World Bank resumed cooperation with the country in 2002 after a ten-year break.
Equatorial Guinea's citizens are unable to change their government through peaceful, democratic means. The December 2002 election was not credible. The four opposition challengers withdrew from the poll, citing irregularities. The candidates said soldiers, police, and electoral officials were present at polling stations and were opening ballot envelopes after votes were cast. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo was declared the winner of his third 7-year term with 99.5 percent of the vote. The 1996 presidential election was neither free nor fair, and was marred by official intimidation, a near total boycott by the political opposition, and very low voter turnout.
The 1999 parliamentary elections were also marred by intimidation and fraud and were neither free nor fair. Many opposition candidates were arrested or confined to their villages prior to the polls. The ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) won 75 of 80 seats. Led jointly by the Convergence for Social Democracy and the Popular Union, seven opposition parties claimed massive fraud, demanding an annulment. Those opposition candidates that had won parliamentary seats refused to take them up. Amnesty International said at least 90 opposition party activists were detained for short periods in 1999.
President Obiang wields broad decree-making powers and effectively bars public participation in the policy-making process. Most opposition parties are linked with the ruling party, and several remain officially banned. By moving the presidential election up two months and jailing political opponents, Obiang could be hoping to avoid controversy such as fraud claims that followed previous elections.
The judiciary is not independent, and laws on search and seizure, as well as detention, are routinely ignored by security forces, who act with impunity. Civil cases rarely go to trial. A military tribunal handles cases tied to national security. Unlawful arrests remain commonplace. Prison conditions are extremely harsh. Abuse combined with poor medical care has led to several deaths. There are no effective domestic human rights organizations in the country, and the few international nongovernmental organizations operating in Equatorial Guinea are prohibited from promoting or defending human rights.
The trial of 144 people in 2002 on suspicion of coup plotting received international condemnation as being unfair. London-based Amnesty International said no evidence was presented against any defendant and called on authorities to conduct a new trial within a reasonable time for the 68 people who were sentenced or else to release them. It also demanded an investigation into allegations by the defendants that they were tortured, adding that it had evidence that the torture continued during the trial. Amnesty said the sentences were unfair, heavy, and passed on the sole basis of statements extracted under torture during incommunicado detention. None of the detainees was allowed access to medical treatment, and some were denied food brought by their families.
An opposition political activist, Juan Ondo Nguema, died in detention in July 2002 after he was sentenced to more than six years in jail. International human rights groups blamed his death on injuries resulting from torture during police investigations. Equatorial Guinea accused local political groups and international organizations of "disrespectful judgments" and "acts of open hostility" against the government.
Press freedom is constitutionally guaranteed, but the government restricts those rights in practice. Nearly all print and broadcast media are state run and tightly controlled. The 1992 press law authorizes government censorship of all publications. Mild criticism of infrastructure and public institutions is allowed, but nothing disparaging about the president or security forces is tolerated.
Foreign publications have become more widely available in recent years. The shortwave programs of Radio France Internationale and Radio Exterior (the international shortwave service from Spain) can be heard. A few small independent newspapers publish occasionally but exercise self-censorship, and all journalists must be registered.
Reporters Sans Frontieres said independent journalists covering the trial of opposition figures in May were verbally threatened by presidential guards and police daily. At one point, presidential security guards threatened to bar journalist Rodrigo Angue Nguema and Pedro Nolasco Ndong, president of the Equatorial Guinea Press Association, from entering the court if they continued to "have contact" with the accused. Police also confiscated the equipment of a photographer from the independent newspaper La Opinion.
Authorities in May barred the press association from organizing activities it had scheduled to mark World Press Freedom Day. Several journalists, political leaders, and association heads complained in 2002 of increasing difficulties in accessing the Internet. They said illegal wiretapping had increased and that the country's sole Internet service provider allegedly monitored e-mail traffic closely.
About 80 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Freedom of individual religious practice is generally respected, although President Obiang has warned the clergy against interfering in political affairs. Monopoly political power by the president's Mongomo clan of the majority Fang ethnic group persists. Differences between the Fang and the Bubi are a major source of political tension that often has erupted into violence. Fang vigilante groups have been allowed to abuse Bubi citizens with impunity.
Constitutional and legal protections of equality for women are largely ignored. Traditional practices discriminate against women, and few have educational opportunities or participate in the formal (business) economy or government. Violence against women is reportedly widespread. There is no child rights policy.
Freedom of association and assembly is restricted. Authorization must be obtained for any gathering of ten or more people for purposes the government deems political.
Steps have been made to reform the labor sector. The country's first labor union, the Small Farmers Syndicate, received legal recognition in 2000, and is independent. The government has ratified all International Labor Organization conventions. There are many legal steps required prior to collective bargaining.