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The African Union selected Equatorial Guinea to host its 17th summit in 2011, despite the country’s reputation as one of the most repressive states in sub-Saharan Africa. The event highlighted the repressive nature of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo’s regime, with security forces reportedly detaining hundreds of suspected dissidents during the lead-up to the summit. In a process described by watchdog organizations as flawed, a constitutional referendum approved in November granted the president increased powers.
Equatorial Guinea achieved independence from Spain in 1968. Current president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo seized power in 1979 after deposing and executing his uncle, the country’s first president, Francisco Macías Nguema. While international pressure compelled Obiang to establish a multiparty system in 1991, Equatorial Guinea has yet to hold credible elections; the Equatoguinean strongman and his Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) have remained firmly entrenched in power. The discovery and exploitation of offshore hydrocarbon resources has allowed Obiang to amass a vast personal fortune, bolstering his domestic position and making him largely impervious to calls from abroad to implement meaningful political reforms.
Obiang dissolved the parliament in February 2008 and called legislative and municipal elections for May. A new coalition composed of the PDGE and nine smaller parties won a reported 100 percent of the vote in many districts, taking 99 out of 100 seats in the parliament amid allegations of widespread irregularities. The Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS), the sole opposition party, was reduced from two seats to one.
In February 2009, a group of unidentified gunmen attacked the presidential palace in Malabo. The government asserted that the assailants were Niger Delta militants working in league with members of the Equatoguinean opposition-in-exile. In the ensuing months, security forces rounded up and expelled hundreds of foreign residents amidst international outcry. Seven Nigerian suspects were convicted and sentenced in April 2010 on charges related to the attack. In August 2010, four former military and government officials were executed within an hour of being sentenced to death by a military court for attempting to assassinate the president during the attacks. According to Amnesty International, Equatoguinean operatives abducted the four individuals in Benin, where they had been living as refugees, and proceeded to hold them incommunicado in Black Beach Prison, where the suspects were reportedly tortured before confessing to the attack.
Obiang swept the November 2009 presidential elections with 95.4 percent of the vote, although as with past balloting, the election was widely regarded as rigged. The president’s main opponent, CPDS leader Plácido Micó Abogo, received less than 4 percent of the vote. The new government appointed in January 2010 included nearly all of the previous cabinet members, and the creation of many new junior minister posts increased the total size of the cabinet by 50 percent. Obiang’s son and reportedly favored successor, Teodoro (known as Teodorín) Nguema Obiang Mangue, retained the agriculture and forests portfolio, was promoted to minister of state, and became vice president of the PDGE. After the changes, members of the president’s family held 11 ministerial posts.
There was a dramatic increase in arbitrary arrests and police raids in the months leading up to the country’s hosting of the June 2011 meeting of the 17th African Union Summit. In addition to the detention of approximately 100 students in the city of Bata, police raided neighborhoods with high foreign-born populations. Some observers attributed the crackdown to pre-emptive government efforts to prevent any manifestations of political unrest during the summit.
On November 13, 2011, a constitutional referendum was approved by 97.7 percent of voters, according to the government. However, organizations such as Human Rights Watch reported voting fraud, the harassment and intimidation of voters, and other irregularities. While the reforms imposed a term limit for the presidency to two consecutive terms, the age limit for eligibility was lifted, which would allow Obiang to run again for a third term in the future. The referendum also increased presidential powers by allowing the president to appoint a vice-president who would assume Obiang’s presidency should he retire or die in office. Expectations are that Obiang will appoint his son.
Equatorial Guinea’s abundant oil revenues do not reach the majority of its citizens. According to the Centre for Global Development, 77 percent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day. As Human Rights Watch noted, the government spent four times as much money building facilities to host the African Union summit in 2011 than it did on education in 2008.
Equatorial Guinea is not an electoral democracy. The 2009 presidential election that resulted in President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo securing a new, seven-year term reportedly featured intimidation and harassment of the opposition by security forces and restrictions on foreign observers. Power rests firmly in the hands of Obiang and his supporters, the overwhelming majority of whom hail from the Esangui clan, part of the Fang ethnic group. The 100 members of the unicameral House of People’s Representatives are elected to five-year terms, but wield little power; all but one of the chamber’s seats are held by members of the pro-presidential coalition. However, the November 2011 referendum approved the creation of a new bicameral parliament to consist of a 100-member Chamber of Deputies and a 70-member Senate. Each body is to be directly elected for five-year terms, but the law will determine how many senators the president may nominate.
The PDGE regime has little tolerance for political dissent. Equatoguinean security agents closely monitor suspected Obiang opponents, including members of the CPDS.
As with politics, Obiang and his inner circle dominate Equatorial Guinea’s economic landscape, and graft is rampant. Most major business transactions cannot transpire without involving an individual connected to the regime. Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Index ranked Equatorial Guinea 172 out of 183 countries surveyed.
Although the constitution guarantees media freedom, the 1992 press law authorizes government censorship. Libel remains a criminal offense, and the government requires all journalists to register with state officials. A few private newspapers are published irregularly but face intense financial and political pressure. The government holds a monopoly on broadcast media, with the exception of RTV-Asonga, a private radio and television outlet owned by Obiang’s son. In mid-February 2011, the Equatoguinean regime forbade media outlets from reporting on the political unrest in the Arab world, even suspending the host of a French-language radio program, Juan Pedro Mendene, for briefly mentioning Libya during a March broadcast. Mendene was then reportedly assaulted by the bodyguard of the secretary of state for radio and television information while leaving the station. In June, security personnel arrested and then deported three journalists from a German television station who had interviewed CPDS leader Plácido Micó Abogo and recorded some footage of an impoverished Malabo neighborhood.
The constitution protects religious freedom, though in practice it is sometimes affected by the country’s broader political repression. Official preference is given to the Roman Catholic Church and the Reform Church of Equatorial Guinea. Academic freedom is also politically constrained, and self-censorship among faculty is common.
Freedoms of assembly and association are severely restricted, and political gatherings must have official authorization to proceed. The Equatoguinean regime reportedly banned the Popular Union (UP) opposition party from organizing demonstrations on March 23 in Malabo and Bata. The few international nongovernmental organizations that operate in the country promote social and economic improvements rather than political and civil 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 Labour Organization conventions, the government has refused to register a number of trade unions, including the Workers’ Union of Equatorial Guinea and the Organization of Rural Workers. The country’s only legal labor union is the Unionized Organization of Small Farmers.
The judiciary is not independent. Civil cases rarely go to trial, and military tribunals handle national security cases. Equatorial Guinea has been condemned internationally for holding detainees in secret, denying them access to lawyers, and jailing them for long periods without charge. UN investigators have also reported systematic torture in the penal system. Prison conditions are deplorable.
Immigrants from neighboring African states and the ethnic Bubi are frequent targets of government harassment. Important contributors to the local economy, foreign workers have frequently been expelled or jailed. Similarly, the Bubi, indigenous inhabitants of the oil-rich island Bioko, have seen their economic rights undermined by successive Fang-dominated regimes.
All citizens are required to obtain exit visas to travel abroad, and some opposition figures have been denied such visas. Those who do travel are sometimes subjected to interrogation upon their return.
Constitutional and legal guarantees of equality for women are largely ignored. Both violence against women and discriminatory traditional practices are reportedly widespread. Women hold just 6 percent of the seats in the House of People’s Representatives; however, the 2011 referendum explicitly commits the government to adopting measures to increase women’s representation and participation in institutional functions.