Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo: The portrait of an African despot, by Osmund Agbo

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Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo: The portrait of an African despot, by Osmund Agbo

Osmund Agbo

A first time visitor to the University of Calabar will get to learn a few interesting facts. Male and female students refer to themselves as Malabites and Malabresses. The male hostel is fondly called the Republic of Malabo.

You have to wonder, what in the world has Unical got to do with Malabo, the capital of the small Central African nation of Equatorial Guinea, located on the island of Bioko and about 100 km off the coast of southern Nigeria. But we will get to that in a minute.

Located on the west coast of central Africa near both the Equator and the Gulf of Guinea, the Republic of Equatorial Guinea consists of Rio Muni, the mainland sandwiched between Cameroon and Gabon, as well as Bioko Island (formerly Fernando Po).

There are also smaller islands of Annobon and Corisco to the southwest. About 80 per cent are Catholics and with a little over 33,000 in population, the Igbos with ancestry from southeast Nigeria are the 3rd biggest ethnic group in that country, after the Fangs and indigenous Bubis.

The Portuguese were the first European that landed in the island of Bioko in 1471 and named the island after the lead explorer, Fernando Po.

The Igbos arrived in the 18th century and were believed to have migrated from Arochukwu, in the present day Abia state.

After about 300 years in Portuguese possession, the colony was ceded to Spain since the former could not find a way to make it profitable, hence giving Madrid access to African slaves to service her plantation in the Americas.

But with many of the indigenous Bubi population decimated by disease and others resisting forced labour, Spain’s initial effort to take control met with great difficulty and they were having trouble finding people to work in cocoa plantations. The island’s economy came to depend on imported workers from all across the world including freed slaves from Cuba and Liberia.

In 1942, Spanish and British authorities signed a labour migration agreement. By the mid-1950s, close to 16,000 workers from Nigeria, mostly Igbos were working in Fernando Po as contract labourers.

Throughout the 1940s, their labour would enable Spain grow cocoa, coffee and general agriculture in this colony which was then called Spanish Guinea.

It took sustained effort by Barcelona based Claretian Catholic missionaries for Spain to make inroads to the colony.

Equatorial Guinea was not left out in the wave of liberation struggles that swept through the continent of Africa after the Second World War. 12 October 1968, marked the day of her independence from Spain and Francisco Macias Nguema was elected president.

Soon afterwards and following the loss of privileged access to Spanish markets, the export economy tanked and the country plunged into a decade of unparalleled pro-communist dictatorship.

The reign of terror that unfolded under President Francisco Macias saw to the massive clampdown on religious groups like the Catholic Church and brutal treatment of any dissenting voice including the Igbo contract labourers that worked in Bioko cocoa plantations.

As a result, there was a mass exodus and almost a third of the population fled the country. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo toppled his uncle Macias in a palace coup in 1979 and has ruled Equatorial Guinea every since.

The economy of this small nation continued to struggle under President Obiang with the country depending mostly on foreign aids to pay her bills.

But all that would change in 1995 when Exxon-Mobil, the American oil giant discovered oil in the country.

Massive offshore discoveries over the past decade have boosted oil to about 380,000 barrels per day, ranking Equatorial Guinea behind only Nigeria and Angola among Sub-Saharan African producers.

As expected, petro-dollar led to a boom and the country experienced rapid economic growth. According to UNESCO, the country has the highest adult literacy rate in sub-Saharan Africa with an average of 95 per cent.

It also has the highest per capita income in Africa but that’s where the good story ends. More than three-quarters of the population live below the poverty line, according to data from the World bank.

The wealth is distributed extremely unevenly and most are concentrated in the hands of the ruling family. This is why despite the oil wealth, Equatorial Guinea still ranks 144th in the 2019 human development index which measures access to necessities of life such as healthcare and access to safe drinking water in the world.

President Obiang is the world’s longest-serving president and has been in power for over four decades. With a net worth of $600 million according to Forbes, he is easily one of the world’s richest head of state.

His son, Teodoro Nguema Mangue is the Vice President and is expected to succeed his 78-year-old father. But the younger Teddy is better known as an Instagram sensation who often posts using the hashtag, luxury living where he flaunts his over-the-top lifestyle, complete with a private jet, a stately mansion in Malibu and keeps a fleet of vintage automobiles.

He would also become the world’s largest collector of Michael Jackson memorabilia, including the pop star’s iconic white glove covered in clear Swarovski crystals for which he paid a whopping $275,000.

Another son, Gabriel Obiang Lima is the Minister for Mines and Hydrocarbons.

The vast majority of the oil revenue of Equatorial Guinea has been siphoned in the guise of funding large infrastructure projects executed by contractors with ties to President Obiang’s inner circle. Education and Health receive an average of 2-3 per cent of the budget, meanwhile, extraction has already been declining since 2012 and oil reserves estimated to dry out by 2035.

Back to the Unical story…

The University of Calabar used to be a satellite campus of the University of Nigeria up until 1975 when it was upgraded to become one of Nigeria’s second generation federal universities.

The founders set out to build a first-rate citadel of learning which was why they commissioned John Elliot, the famed British architect known to have styled luxury brands like the seven-star Emirate palace Abu Dhabi to design the institution. But like most things in Nigeria, the dream is often grand but the reality is abysmal.

Typical of most public institutions in Nigeria, the new students were faced with mountainous challenges during this period. Coincidentally, this was also the time when the Nigerian government decided to evacuate about 45,000 Nigerians working in Malabo, at the peak of President Macias Nguema’s reign of terror in Equatorial Guinea. Some of the returnees were camped around the place that later became part of the students’ hostels. Unical students likened their situation to the fate of those Nigerians returnees from Malabo.

When the British economist Richard Auty coined the term “resource curse” also known as the paradox of plenty or the poverty paradox, you know he had African nations of Nigeria, Angola and Equatorial Guinea in mind.

This is the phenomenon where countries with an abundance of natural resources have less economic growth, less democracy and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources.

How can Africa rise with the likes of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo?

Dr Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: Eagleosmund@yahoo.com.

Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo: The portrait of an African despot, by Osmund Agbo

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