Freedom in the World
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President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo appointed his eldest son as second vice president in May 2012, putting him second in line for the presidency. Equatorial Guinea hosted the Africa Cup of Nations in January, which led to crackdowns on press freedom and other civil liberties. Several human rights activists were detained on questionable charges and then released during the year, while the head of the country’s press association died under suspicious circumstances in November.
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 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, which where swept by his Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) and its coalition partners 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 with members of the Equatoguinean opposition-in-exile. In the ensuing months, security forces rounded up and expelled hundreds of foreign residents. Seven Nigerian suspects were convicted and sentenced in April 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 the election reportedly featured intimidation and harassment of the opposition by security forces and was widely regarded as rigged. The president’s main opponent, CPDS leader Plácido Micó Abogo, received less than 4 percent of the vote.
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. 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, though organizations such as Human Rights Watch reported voting fraud. While the reforms imposed a limit of two consecutive terms for the presidency, the age limit for eligibility was lifted, which would allow Obiang to run for a third term in the future. The referendum also allowed the president to appoint a vice president who would assume the presidency should Obiang retire or die in office. In May 2012, Obiang appointed a new cabinet, including several of his close relatives, along with a new first vice president; many of those in powerful positions in the previous cabinet were merely moved into other powerful positions. Obiang also appointed his eldest son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, as second vice president in May. The move, which would make Mangue second in line to succeed the president after the first vice president, was seen as a step toward grooming Mangue to succeed his father.
Equatorial Guinea’s abundant oil revenues do not reach the majority of its citizens, with 77 percent of the population living on less than $2 a day. According to Human Rights Watch, the government spent four times as much money building facilities to host the African Union summit in 2011 as it did on education in 2008. The government built or expanded several stadiums to host the Africa Cup of Nations soccer competition in January 2012, but has not made the cost public.
Equatorial Guinea is not an electoral democracy. Power rests firmly in the hands of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo 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. 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. Elections for this new parliament are scheduled for 2013.
Obiang’s regime has little tolerance for political dissent. Equatoguinean security agents closely monitor suspected Obiang opponents, including members of the CPDS. PDGE party membership is essentially a prerequisite for government employment, and civil servants are reluctant to criticize the authorities for fear that their family members will be blacklisted from securing public employment.
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. In June 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a complaint alleging that the president’s son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, had used money obtained through corruption to purchase a California mansion and private jet. In July, French authorities issued an arrest warrant for Mangue on money laundering charges. In August, authorities in Paris, where Mangue had been living, seized much of his property as a result of outstanding charges of corruption against Obiang. Equatorial Guinea was ranked 163 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Index.
Although the constitution guarantees media freedom, a 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. The government harassed foreign reporters covering the Africa Cup of Nations in 2012, especially those who tried to report on more than the tournament. In November, Manuel Nzé Nsongo, the president of the Equatorial Guinea Press Association, died under suspicious circumstances after attending a working lunch with Agustín Nzé Nfumu, the Minister of Information, Press, and Radio; his relatives suspected that he had been poisoned.
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.
Freedom of assembly is severely restricted, and political gatherings must have official authorization to proceed. The government also uses more indirect means to restrict meetings, including organizing parallel competing meetings and raising the price of renting meeting facilities. The few international nongovernmental organizations that operate in the country promote social and economic improvements rather than political and civil rights. The few local groups that do exist are underfunded, relying on small grants from foreign embassies as virtually no international grant-giving organizations work in Equatorial Guinea. In February 2012, Dr. Wenceslao Mansogo Alo, an outspoken human rights activist, was arrested on trumped up charges of medical negligence. He was convicted in May, though Obiang pardoned him in June, in line with his history of arresting and then pardoning his opponents. On October 22, Fabian Nsue Nguema, a human rights lawyer, was arrested without a warrant while visiting a client at the Black Beach prison, and was illegally held at a police station without being charged until his release on October 30.
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. The country’s only legal labor union is the Unionized Organization of Small Farmers.
The judiciary is not independent. Judges in sensitive cases reportedly need to consult with the president’s office before making decisions. 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, in violation of domestic law. 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. Foreign workers have frequently been expelled or jailed. The Bubi have seen their economic rights undermined by successive Fang-dominated regimes. Harassment of immigrants tends to increase after international events. Following the Africa Cup of Nations in January 2012, the government increased harassment of African immigrants to prevent them from using the games to obtain entry visas and stay in the country illegally.
The authorities frequently harass activists attempting to travel abroad, often confiscating passports long enough to cause them to miss international conferences or meetings.
Constitutional and legal guarantees of equality for women are largely ignored. Women hold just 8 percent of the seats in the House of People’s Representatives. Violence against women is reportedly widespread.