Freedom in the World
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Equatorial Guinea signed a series of new oil contracts in October 2007, continuing to reap huge profits from its natural resources even as the majority of its citizens remained mired in poverty. Meanwhile, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo maintained his stranglehold on power in a country with one of the worst human rights records in Africa.
Equatorial Guinea achieved independence from Spain in 1968 and has since been one of the world’s most tightly closed and repressive societies. Current president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo seized power in 1979 by deposing and murdering his uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema. Pressure from donor countries forced Obiang to legalize a multiparty system in 1992, though he and his clique continued to control political power.
Obiang won the 1996 presidential election amid official intimidation, a boycott by the political opposition, and very low voter turnout. The ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) won 75 of 80 seats in similarly flawed parliamentary elections in 1999. The president secured another seven-year term with 99.5 percent of the vote in 2002, after four opposition challengers withdrew to protest fraud and irregularities. Following the election, Obiang formed a “government of national unity” that included eight smaller parties, but key portfolios were held by presidential relatives and loyalists. The PDGE won 68 of 100 seats in 2004 parliamentary elections, with allied parties taking 30. The opposition Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS) won the remaining 2 seats.
An apparent coup attempt involving foreign mercenaries was foiled in March 2004 with the arrests of 19 men in Equatorial Guinea and 70 others in Zimbabwe. A crackdown on foreigners ensued, and hundreds of immigrants were deported or fled. The government accused three men of plotting the coup: Severo Moto, an opposition figure living in exile in Spain; South African financier and oil broker Eli Calil; and Sir Mark Thatcher, son of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Tried in a South African court, Thatcher testified as part of a plea bargain that he had unwittingly helped bankroll the coup attempt. Moto and eight of his political allies were tried in absentia and convicted of treason. A separate group of 19 Equatorial Guineans accused of involvement in an October 2004 coup attempt were tried in Malabo and received sentences of up to 30 years in prison in September 2005.
Amnesty International expressed concern over the likely use of torture in extracting confessions from the defendants in Malabo, particularly in the case of a German suspect who died in custody. In 2005, Obiang granted amnesty to six Armenian pilots convicted of involvement in the mercenaries’ coup. Under international pressure, he freed several South Africans citizens in the group as part of a larger clemency granted to 41 political prisoners in June 2006. Obiang has pledged to free all political prisoners but has not done so to date.
Equatorial Guinea is Africa’s third-largest oil producer, and its energy sector has drawn billions of dollars in foreign investment from the United States, China, and other countries. In October 2007, contracts to develop seven new oil blocks were awarded to groups including the South African oil and gas company Ophir, India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, and Swiss-based Glencore. Equatorial Guinea’s surging oil revenues have yet to reach the majority of the population, which continues to suffer from poverty, very low literacy rates, and lack of access to clean water. Health-care facilities are basic in urban areas and virtually nonexistent in rural areas. Equatorial Guinea ranked 127 out of 177 countries on the UN Development Programme’s 2007 Human Development Index.
Equatorial Guinea is not an electoral democracy. The country has never held a credible election. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, whose current seven-year term will end in 2009, holds broad powers and limits public participation in the policy-making process. The 100 members of the unicameral House of People’s Representatives are elected to five-year terms but wield little power, and 98 of the seats are held by the ruling PDGE and allied parties. The activities of the few opposition parties, in particular the CPDS, are closely monitored by the government. A clan network linked to the president underlies the formal political structure and plays a major role in decision making.
Equatorial Guinea is considered one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Obiang and members of his inner circle and clan continue to amass huge personal profits from the oil windfall. The president has argued that information on oil revenues is a “state secret,” resisting calls for transparency and accountability. Equatorial Guinea was ranked 168 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Although the constitution guarantees press freedom, the 1992 press law authorizes government censorship of all publications. A few private newspapers and underground pamphlets are published irregularly, but they face financial and political pressure. Libel remains a criminal offense, and all journalists are required to register with the government. The state holds a monopoly on broadcast media except for RTV-Asonga, a private radio and television outlet owned by the president’s son, Teodorino Obiang Nguema. Satellite television is increasingly popular, and Radio Exterior, Spain’s international shortwave service, is listened to widely. Equatorial Guinea’s only internet service provider is state affiliated, and the government reportedly monitors internet communications.
The constitution protects religious freedom, and government respect for freedom of individual religious practice has generally improved. Most of the population is Roman Catholic. Although the government does not restrict academic freedom, self-censorship among faculty is common.
Freedoms of assembly and association are severely restricted, and official authorization is mandatory for gatherings deemed political. There are no effective human rights organizations in the country, and the few international nongovernmental organizations are prohibited from promoting or defending human rights. The constitution provides for the right to organize unions, but there are many legal barriers to collective bargaining. While it has ratified key International Labor Organization conventions, the government has refused to register the Equatorial Guinea Trade Union, whose members operate in secret. The country’s only legal labor union, the Small Farmers’ Syndicate, received legal recognition in 2000.
The judiciary is not independent. Laws on search and seizure—as well as detention—are ignored by security forces, which generally act with impunity. Civil cases rarely go to trial, and military tribunals handle cases tied to national security. Prison conditions, especially in the notorious Black Beach prison, are extremely harsh. The authorities have been accused of widespread human rights abuses, including torture, detention of political opponents, and extrajudicial killings. The UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention cited the country in an October 2007 report for apparently holding detainees in secret, denying detainees access to lawyers, and holding detainees for long periods without charge.
Obiang’s Mongomo clan, part of the majority Fang ethnic group, has monopolized political and economic power to the exclusion of other groups. Differences between the Fang and the Bubi are a major source of political tension that has often erupted into violence. Fang vigilante groups have been allowed to abuse Bubi citizens with impunity.
All citizens are required to obtain exit visas to travel abroad, and some members of opposition parties have been denied such visas. Those who do travel abroad are sometimes subjected to interrogation on their return.
Constitutional and legal guarantees of equality for women are largely ignored, and violence against women is reportedly widespread. Traditional practices including primogeniture and polygamy discriminate against women. Abortion is permitted to preserve the health of the mother, but only with spousal or parental authorization.