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Lagniappe

UNESCO for Sale: Dictators allowed to buy their own prizes, for the right price


Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo

By Ken Silverstein

In the face of intense pressure from human rights and advocacy groups and a barrage of bad publicity, the lunkheads who run UNESCO are apparently reconsidering their decision to allow a corrupt dictator to endow a prize in his own name. The story involves Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has ruled oil-rich Equatorial Guinea since 1979 and who has stolen just about every penny in the national treasury since then. He wants to give UNESCO $3 million to create the “Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences.”

Outside of UNESCO, the prize is a joke. In a May 20 letter to Irina Bokova, UNESCO's director general, Senator Patrick Leahy wrote: “I am concerned that by sponsoring this prize, UNESCO is associating itself with a dictator who has spent thirty years doing little more than consolidating his power and enriching himself and his family. It seems highly likely that the $3 million donated to UNESCO by President Obiang for the Obiang International Prize came from corruption, kickbacks or other theft from the public treasury.”

The Economist suggested that other international agencies follow suit, proposing the creation of the World Food Program “Robert Mugabe award for agricultural productivity,” the World Health Organization “Silvio Berlusconi medal in sex education,” and the International Atomic Energy Agency “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prize for the peaceful sponsorship of nuclear power.”

A group of scientists, public health organizations, and professionals called on UNESCO to abolish the prize, saying, “We believe the most perfunctory examination of President Obiang's record on human rights and meeting the needs of the people makes it clear that he is cynically attempting to use UNESCO to legitimize his abusive regime.” A coalition whose members range from Human Rights Watch to EG Justice suggested that “the $3 million that UNESCO has accepted from President Obiang to be applied to the education and welfare of Equatoguineans, rather than the glorification of their president. We respectfully propose that these funds be used to provide rudimentary educational supplies for primary schools and to address other long neglected needs in Equatorial Guinea.”

I've been told that following recent urgent meetings in Paris, Bokova has decided to raise the matter at a June 15 “informational meeting” of the organization's Executive Board. It appears that Bokova might be ready to back away from the prize — “The Director-General has expressed her serious concern over UNESCO's prestige and has urged Member States to live up to their responsibilities and discuss the future of the prize,” reads press guidance that UNESCO HQ in Paris sent to the agency's New York office a few days ago. But one source told me that despite the public flogging UNESCO is taking, Bokova will approve the prize unless the Board gives her clear guidance to do otherwise.

The Obama administration (and some European governments) have opposed the prize behind-the-scenes, but the U.S. hasn't taken a public stance on the matter since objecting to the original decision to create it back in late-2008. If the U.S. and other governments don't take more aggressive action before June 15, UNESCO will likely move forward with this travesty and confirm its reputation as an agency that sells itself to the highest bidder.

Note: For those following this story, see the excellent coverage at the Turtle Bay blog . Below a two stories on Ecuatorial Guinea.

U.S. Government Documents Crime Spree by Dictator's Son: Why no action by the feds?

By Ken Silverstein

In 2004, George W. Bush issued Presidential Proclamation 7750, which barred corrupt foreign officials from entering the United States and ordered the State Department to compile a list of banned individuals. Three years later Congress approved a complementary measure that said the State Department should take special heed to bar officials when there was “credible evidence” to believe they were involved the theft of natural resources revenues. Last July, the State Department issued a report noting that corruption eroded “confidence in democratic institutions” and that fighting it was a central tenet of American foreign policy. The report also stated that the Obama administration would “vigorously” enforce 7750, better known as the Anti-Kleptocracy Intiative, and give particularly close scrutiny to visa requests from individuals involved in corruption involving natural resources.

Why, then, is a notoriously crooked official from oil-rich Equatorial Guinea allowed to enter the country and to hold vast millions in assets here? It's certainly not because the U.S. government is unaware of the scandalous activities of Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue. Previously undisclosed documents — obtained by London-based Global Witness and provided to Harper's Magazine — reveal an extensive federal investigation of Obiang Mangue was underway at least two years ago. Global Witness's report on the U.S. investigation into Obiang Mangue is available here .

Obiang Mangue, often called Teodorin, is the son and potential successor to Equatorial Guinea's long-ruling dictator. The investigation, led by the Justice Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), identified a list of Teodorin's American assets. They include an estate in Malibu , which sits on sixteen acres of land and boasts a swimming pool, tennis courts, and a four-hole golf course. Teodorin paid $35 million in cash for the property three years ago. He also owns a $33.8 million Gulf Stream V private jet, millions of dollars worth of sports cars, and at least two luxury boats, and has used money laundered through shell corporations to finance his American shopping sprees, according to the documents.

A Justice Department memorandum from September of 2007 noted that Teodorin's salary as Minister of the Agriculture and Forestry paid only $5,000 per month. “[I]t is suspected that a large portion of Teodoro Nguema OBIANG's assets have originated from extortion, theft of public funds, or other corrupt conduct,” said the document, which also detailed how between 2005 and 2007 Teodorin had funneled into the United States at least $75 million — nearly twice the amount allocated by Equatorial Guinea for its yearly national education budget.

A PowerPoint prepared by ICE's lead investigator on the case identified the inquiry's goals as being to “identify, trace, freeze, and recover assets within the United States illicitly acquired through kleptocracy by Teodoro Obiang and his associates,” and to “deny safe haven in the United States to kleptocrats.”

In September 2007, an American delegation met investigators in France, where Teodorin has also lived (quite well) and been the subject of law enforcement inquiry. At the meeting it was agreed that the U.S. would submit to French authorities a “commission rogatoire internationale,” or a formal request for cross-border legal assistance.

Yet two years later the investigation into Teodorin is stalled, according to two sources that spoke about the case off the record. And though the State Department will not publicly disclose the list of foreign officials barred under Bush's Proclamation 7750, Teodorin is not on it. An official at Equatorial Guinea's embassy in Washington, who asked to remain unidentified, said he had traveled to the United States as recently as late-September, when he helped officially inaugurate his country's consulate in Houston.

I requested an interview with Teodorin through the embassy of Equatorial Guinea and through Qorvis, a Washington public relations and lobbying firm that works for the government, and provided a detailed account of the charges in the U.S. documents. I received no reply other than for this comment from the embassy: “We have not been contacted by any Government Agencies and are not aware of any ongoing investigation into the Government of Equatorial Guinea or any of its representatives.”

Jack Blum, an attorney and former Senate counsel who played a key role in investigations into BCCI and the Lockheed Corporation's overseas bribery scandal, suspects that the lack of action against Teodorin may be tied to Equatorial Guinea's energy wealth and close ties with American oil firms, such as ExxonMobil and Chevron, who have major investments in the country. “The least they could do is cut off his shopping privileges by denying him entry into the United States,” he said. “Where the hell is the U.S. government?”

Teodorin's father, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has ruled Equatorial Guinea since 1979, when he overthrew and executed his uncle. Since taking the reins of power, Obiang has squashed political opposition and crushed dissent. He has been “elected” three times in balloting marred by fraud (in 1989 with 99 percent of the vote, in 1996 with 97.8 percent, and in 2002 with 97.1 percent).

The State Department's 2009 global human rights survey , released in February, cited abuses in Equatorial Guinea that included “unlawful killings by security forces; government-sanctioned kidnappings; systematic torture of prisoners and detainees by security forces; life threatening conditions in prisons and detention facilities; impunity; arbitrary arrest, detention, and incommunicado detention.”

Until the mid-1990s, Equatorial Guinea was a pariah state with few international allies. Then American energy firms discovered vast reserves of oil and gas in the waters off Equatorial Guinea. Since then, the country has become the fourth-largest producer of crude in sub-Saharan Africa. Between 1993 and 2007, annual oil revenues shot from $3 million to $4.8 billion.

Equatorial Guinea now enjoys a per capita income of about $37,000, on par with Denmark. Yet a report released earlier this year by Human Rights Watch noted that 77 percent of the population still lives in poverty, 35 percent die before the age of 40, and 57 percent lack access to safe water. “The government of Equatorial Guinea has set new low standards of political and economic malfeasance in handling its billions of dollars in oil revenue,” the report stated. “The dictatorship…has used an oil boom to entrench and enrich itself further at the expense of the country's people.”

The Obiang family has not been terribly discreet about its plundering of the national treasury. In 1999, Obiang bought a $2.6 million mansion in the Maryland suburbs that has 10 bathrooms and an indoor pool. The following year he bought a second Maryland property for $1.15 million. In 2008, a Spanish civil rights group filed a complaint charging that Obiang and eleven relatives and associates had used laundered money to buy homes and other real estate in the country. An official investigation into those charges is now underway.

A 2004 report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that Obiang had control over some $700 million in state funds, deposited at Riggs National Bank in Washington, D.C. by American oil companies active in Equatorial Guinea. Riggs opened multiple personal accounts for Obiang, his wife and other relatives, which held at least $13 million, and helped establish shell corporations overseas for the president. Riggs, said the report, “turned a blind eye to evidence suggesting the bank was handling the proceeds of foreign corruption, and allowed numerous suspicious transactions to take place without notifying law enforcement.” (Subsequent to the investigation, Riggs Bank paid $41 million in fines for lax oversight, a senior vice president pled guilty to fraud and money laundering, and it was bought by PNC Financial Services.) According to the report, American oil companies “contributed to corrupt practices” by entering into business ventures and making substantial payments to government officials in Equatorial Guinea.

The Obiang regime's awful record on corruption and human rights has not prevented the United States from cozying up to it. In 2003, following an intense lobbying campaign by the oil industry, President Bush decided to reopen the American embassy in the country, which had been shut down eight years earlier for budgetary reasons and human rights violations. In 2006, Obiang met with then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice , who called him “a good friend” to the United States.

Teodorin has had ties to the Los Angeles area since at least 1991, when he attended an English as a Second Language course at Pepperdine University in Malibu. Elisa Wax, director of the course during that time, recalled Teodorin arriving to campus in sports cars or limousines. “He was there to party,” she said. “He rarely came to class.”

Teodorin's tuition of $3,400 for the non-degree course included boarding at Pepperdine, but he shuttled between the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and a house he rented in Malibu. Wax received a steady stream of phone calls from the hotel as well as shops in Beverly Hills trying to track down Teodorin to settle outstanding bills. She would direct these calls to a representative at Walter International, a Houston-based firm that then had a stake in Equatorial Guinea's offshore fields and that financed Teodorin's “studies” at Pepperdine. The woman assigned by Walter to handle these complaints was “pulling out her hair,” Wax said. “There were people trying to locate him from all directions.”

After five months, Teodorin dropped out of the program. John Bennett, the American ambassador in Equatorial Guinea at the time, said that Walter International covered $50,000 in expenses racked up by Teodorin during his brief stay.

Teodorin has owned several estates in Los Angeles. Before purchasing his current property, he bought a house for $5.8 million in Bel Air, where he lived across the street from Farrah Fawcett. For a time he owned and operated a hip-hop label called TNO Entertainment, which produced two albums before going out of business. In an effort to woo the rapper Eve, Teodorin reportedly rented a 300-foot yacht from Microsoft founder Paul Allen for about $700,000. News accounts said Eve dated Teodorin for a time but dumped him after learning that his father had been accused of being a cannibal who ate his political rivals. (A request for comment sent to Eve's publicist was declined.)

In France, a TV crew filmed Teodorin driving down the Champs-Elysees in a Bentley and on a shopping spree during which he bought 30 designer suits in a single afternoon. A Western businessman who had dealings with Teodorin recalled meeting him in Paris, where he was staying at the Plaza Athenee , one of the city's most luxurious hotels. Teodorin had commandeered three of the biggest suites there—the current rate for such suites runs to thousands of dollars a night — and booked a number of other rooms for his entourage, including bodyguards and girlfriends.

Teodorin also invited this person (who asked not to be identified in this article) to a large dinner party at La Maison du Caviar . “He had a private room and he ordered a lot of champagne and so much caviar you could have scooped it with a shovel,” the source said. “All he knows is how to spend money, that's how he measures success.”

A 2007 French police investigation uncovered tens of millions of dollars worth of assets belonging to the rulers and family members of Equatorial Guinea, Congo, and Gabon. The investigation showed that Teodorin controlled multiple accounts at blue chip banks such as Barclays, BNP Paribas, and HSBC, and that his car purchases alone had come to $6.3 million over the prior decade.

In South Africa, Teodorin bought two estates in Cape Town in 2004 for $7 million. The Times of South Africa reported that he spent millions more on renovations, including a home-theater sound system and spa baths and marble surfaces for the bathrooms. An unnamed security guard who had worked for Teodorin told the newspaper that his employer was never without a briefcase full of cash and spent thousands of dollars on champagne for his female companions.

On September 4, 2007, Stewart C. Robinson, deputy director of the criminal division at the Justice Department's Office of International Affairs, sent French investigators an urgent “Request for Assistance” in an investigation of “suspected criminal conduct of Teodoro Nguema OBIANG and his associates.” It asked that “the subject of this request and the existence of a U.S. investigation on this subject be kept strictly confidential.”

In addition to Teodorin, the “targets of the investigation” were Michael Jay Berger, a Los Angeles-based attorney who “serves as an intermediary for funds wired from Equatorial Guinea,” and Somagui Forestal, a forestry company “beneficially owned by [Teodorin] from which large money transfers to the United States have originated.” Teodorin's home in Malibu was purchased in the name of a shell corporation, Sweetwater Management, Inc., of which he is the president. His Gulfstream jet was purchased by another of Teodorin's shell corporations, Ebony Shine International, Ltd., which is registered in the British Virgin Islands.

The U.S. investigation of Teodorin and his associates, wrote Robinson, had “identified numerous suspicious transactions”:

—In April 2005, Teodorin “was the originator on at least five separate wire transfers,” each for $5.9 million. The money moved from a bank account in Equatorial Guinea, through a French bank and then “to a correspondent account at Wachovia Corporation Atlantic to [an account] at First American Trust FSB in the name of First American Title.” Investigators believe he used those funds to purchase the mansion in Malibu.

—In April 2006, Teodorin “was the originator on three wire transfers” that moved through the same banks, except the final destination now was a Bank of America account in the name of McAfee & Taft. Through those three transfers, Teodorin moved $10.3 million into the United States.

—From May to June 2006, Teodorin and his associates executed six wire transfers from a French bank to a correspondent account at Wachovia Atlantic and then to a UBS account in New York, in the name of Insured Aircraft Title Service Correspondent. The funds, $33.8 million in all, were used by Teodorin to purchase his luxury jet.

—Between November 2006 and June 2007, the “suspected money laundering continued …through the use of an intermediary,” identified as Michael Jay Berger. He was said to be the recipient of at least four wire transfers totaling about $800,000. The evidence suggested that the wires originated from an account for Somagui Forestal bank in Equatorial Guinea and were transferred through French banks to Berger's attorney/client trust account at Union Bank of California. (Berger declined multiple requests for comment.)

Walter Moran, then Special Agent in Charge of ICE's Miami bureau, sent the French a PowerPoint presentation in support of the request for assistance. It said that Teodorin's Malibu mansion was “undergoing multi-million dollar renovation,” and that he had “multiple luxury vehicles stored at the Peterson Automobile Museum in Los Angeles,” including two Rolls Royce Phantoms worth $350,000 each; two Maybachs worth $350,000 each; four Ferraris worth $250,000 each; and one Rolls Royce Park Ward.

It identified other American assets of Teodorin's, including two speedboats of unknown value. Furthermore, two independent sources had told investigators that Teodorin was building a 200-foot custom luxury yacht, complete with a shark tank. He had also recently sought to purchase an apartment at the Ritz Carlton in New York for $20 million in cash and was looking to purchase residential property in Miami.

The PowerPoint said further that Teodorin:

—was a “Recreational drug user (3 to 4 day binges with friends).”

—frequently traveled to the United States as an A-1 diplomat, “although he is seldom on official business.”

—“allegedly received large wire transfers weekly through a ‘fictitious' corporate account at Union Bank in California.”

—was the target of multiple Suspicious Activities Reports for suspected money laundering from financial institutions including Bank of America and Wachovia. “As a result of his activities, both banks have closed all accounts associated with Obiang and his associates,” the document said.

After being informed of the contents of the government documents, Lawrence Barcella, a former federal prosecutor, said:

“To build a case like this you have to prove that his money comes from the proceeds of corruption. That would generally require the cooperation of the foreign government in order to gather sufficient evidence, and in this case Equatorial Guinea is obviously not going to cooperate. It looks like they [prosecutors] have grounds for probable cause, which would be enough to get a warrant and an indictment, but they have to get over the hump of probable cause to beyond a reasonable doubt and that's a lot tougher. Justice Department guidelines say you should not seek an indictment unless you believe you can meet the reasonable doubt standard.”

However, Barcella said that even if Justice could not prosecute Teodorin, the State Department could bar him from entering the country. “Traveling into the United States is not a right, it's a gift. He could very easily be declared PNG and denied entry. For years, John Lennon couldn't enter the United States because he smoked marijuana. You can deny a visa for any reason.”

Jack Blum shared much of Barcella's assessment. “Gathering the evidentiary material to prove the illegal origins of [Teodorin's] money would not be easy and [bringing a case] would turn the U.S. relationship with Equatorial Guinea on its head, and that's of some interest given all the oil.” However, barring Teodorin from the country would be a simple matter, adding, “That is a sensible step that would have real impact, as it would put off limits to him all of his assets in the United States,” he said.

Blum believed the failure to take action against Obiang could be politically motivated. He noted that several other Justice Department cases involving oil kleptocracies — including the so-called “Kazakhgate” scandal, in which the president of Kazakhstan allegedly received tens of millions of dollars in payoffs from an American businessman representing U.S. oil companies—have been mysteriously bogged down for years. “It's quite possible that there is high-level political interference,” he said. “As U.S. citizens, we have the right to know what's going on here. If they are going to drop the cases, they need to lay out the facts and explain why.”

Alexandre Wrage, the president of TRACE, which advises multinational companies on compliance with anti-bribery laws, offered this comment: “To deny a visa under 7750, the State Department needs to determine that there is ‘reason to believe' a public official has misappropriated public funds. That's a very low standard to meet. Teodorin Obiang owns real estate and cars valued in excess of $80 million. That certainly gives me reason to believe that the funds have come from some source other than his official salary. There's a second part to the test [of denying a visa under 7750]: has the misappropriation had serious adverse effects on the national interests of the United States? Massive theft by the kleptocrats of the world undermines U.S. long-terms interests; it undermines democratization efforts and poverty alleviation, and contributes to the collapse of some states, making the world less safe. I would hope that it is this standard that applies, and not the short-term national interest of access to oil.”

Barring a coup d'etat, it is likely that President Obiang, age 67, will rule until his death and then hand off power to a chosen successor. Teodorin is widely considered to be the leading candidate to succeed him. “The guy knows how to play politics,” says Bennett, the former American ambassador. “He's seen as the junior Big Man.”

One can argue about the legal obstacles involved in prosecuting Teodorin or seizing his assets. There is no doubt at all, though, that he is ineligible to enter the United States under 7750. Despite the U.S. government's public commitment to keeping corrupt foreign officials out of the country, the State Department appears to be reluctant to make use of 7750. The list of those banned under the proclamation is classified, but two confidential sources I spoke to said there are only about three dozen names on it. These include, according to a few foreign press accounts and my sources, officials from Cambodia, Kenya and Nigeria.

Could the lack of action against Teodorin stem from political pressure to ignore the crimes and corruption of a possible future president of an oil-friendly ally? It's impossible to say with certainty, and the Department of State declined comment for this article. Both the Justice Department and ICE also declined comment, saying they could not confirm or deny the existence of any investigation.


U.S. Oil Politics in the "Kuwait of Africa"

By Ken Silverstein

We've found in excess of 500 million barrels of oil here, and we expect that to grow to at least 1 billion-and that's not to say that we won't find more. This is one of the hottest spots in the world right now." The speaker is Jim Musselman, head of Triton Energy, and the spot he's talking about is Equatorial Guinea , a tiny nation located on the west coast of Africa . We're sitting in the front room of his comfortably appointed government villa in the capital city of Malabo , and though it's blistering hot outside, the villa's interior is pleasantly cool. It's one of dozens that the government, flush with oil revenues, has built for visiting foreign dignitaries and businessmen, and that sit inside a walled compound guarded by soldiers posted in towers spaced alongside the perimeter.

Equatorial Guinea has long been one of the poorest and most neglected nations on the planet, but within a few years the country could be producing as much as 500,000 barrels a day-one per capita-which would make it sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest producer behind Nigeria and Angola. Thanks to oil, Equatorial Guinea 's economy is projected to grow by 34 percent this year, more than twice the rate of any other nation's. It is also thanks to oil that under George Bush there's been a slow but steady blossoming of relations between the United States , which buys almost two-thirds of Equatorial Guinea 's petroleum, and the government of Brig. Gen. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who took power in a coup in 1979.

Musselman, an affable, balding man wearing a blue dress shirt and cowboy boots embossed with his initials, describes himself as "an unabashed fan" of Equatorial Guinea , and it's easy to see why. Dallas-based Triton was founded by William Lee, who ran the firm until 1993, when Triton was accused (and later convicted) of bribing Indonesian government officials. Musselman took charge five years later, after putting together a $350 million rescue package, but Triton was still floundering until it made a big oil strike here in 1999. Largely due to its Equatorial Guinea stake, Triton was recently purchased by oil giant Amerada Hess, and Musselman is here with that company's chairman, John Hess, for meetings with Obiang.

What makes Equatorial Guinea especially important today, Musselman says, is political turmoil in the Persian Gulf and other regions from which the United States imports petroleum. "There is plenty of instability in the world, and the more diverse supplies of oil we have, the better off things are," he says. "Knock on wood, this country is stable and the president is sincerely trying to improve things. It's not going to turn into suburban Washington , but it could be a model for this part of the world."

With its newfound oil wealth and tiny population, Equatorial Guinea could indeed be a model in a region known for dictatorial, rule and gross corruption. But that prospect seems unlikely given that the Obiang regime is generally considered to rank among the world's worst-an assessment shared not only by human rights groups but also the CIA. The agency's current World Factbook says that America 's new strategic partner is a country "ruled by ruthless leaders who have badly mismanaged the economy." From outside the villa walls, it's easy to see how the CIA reached that conclusion.

Bringing the Oil Home

During the cold war, the United States viewed Africa as a major battleground with the Soviet Union and poured billions of dollars of economic and military aid into the continent. After the collapse of Communism, though, American interest waned. As recently as 1995, a Pentagon report concluded that the United States had "very little traditional strategic interests in Africa ." But during the past few years, Africa has become a growing source of American oil imports-especially West Africa, which in oil parlance is considered to include Angola as well as Nigeria , Congo Republic , Gabon , Cameroon and now Equatorial Guinea . The United States already buys 15 percent of its oil fromWest Africa- nearly as much as comes from Saudi Arabia-a figure expected to grow to 20 percent within the next five years and' according to the National Intelligence Council, to as high as 25 percent by 2015.

The Bush Administration's national energy policy, released last May, predicted that West Africa would become "one of the fastest growing sources of oil and gas for the American market." The year before, Paul Michael Wihbey of Washington 's Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies described West Africa as "an area of vital US interest" in testimony before Congress. He proposed the creation of a new South Atlantic Military Command that would "permit the US Navy and armed forces to more easily project power to defend American interests and allies in West Africa ." The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon further heightened American attention to Africa, with national security planners urging that the United States seek to diversify supplies of oil away from the Middle East .

There's been virtually no public discussion or debate about America 's growing appetite for West African oil, though it has significant economic, military and geopolitical implications. While these countries are not Islamic regimes-a fact frequently emphasized by American strategists-US allies in West Africa are not especially attractive. In Angola , petroleum revenues have allowed the government of Jose Eduardo dos Santos to build a vast military and internal security apparatus. Other than oil, Angola produces little besides artificial limbs for war victims, but dos Santos has become by some estimates one of the world's fifty richest people. Nigeria , though it formally made the transition from military dictatorship to democratic rule in 1999, is also a disaster. The army has committed several massacres of civilians since President Olusegun Obasanjo took power, and a parliamentary report recently accused his administration of corruption and ineptitude. "The Middle East presents a number of problems, but most West African regimes are neither stable nor democratic," says Terry Karl, a professor of political science at Stanford University and author of The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States. "Oil development in that context is likely to buffer authoritarian rule and foster corruption, instability and environmental destruction."

None of this has dimmed West Africa 's allure in foreign policy circles. In January the Council on Foreign Relations hosted an event on the growing importance of Africa (" America 's Response to Terrorism: Managing Africa's Oil Revenues in a Changing Global Climate"), and Wihbey's institute held a similar affair. The latter, at downtown Washington's tony University Club, was attended by oil company executives, Bush Administration officials, corporate lobbyists and representatives from a number of African embassies, including Teodoro Biyogo Nsue, Equatorial Guinea's ambassador to the United States (and General Obiang's brother-in-law). Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Walter Kansteiner gave the introductory talk, which had the vague ring of a revival meeting sermon. "African oil is a national strategic interest," he told the crowd. "It's people like you who will...bring the oil home." Other speakers included Lieut. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, an Air Force officer assigned to the Defense Secretary's office, who said the United States needs to step up military training for African oil producers so that those countries can "secure their property, their investment and our investment."

Washington and Malabo : The Ice Age

Not so long ago, Equatorial Guinea didn't register as even the tiniest blip on Washington 's radar screen. Roughly the size of Maryland , the country is composed of a few islands-including Bioko, home to Malabo -and a square of land on the continent wedged between Gabon and Cameroon . Average life expectancy is 54; malaria, yellow fever and other diseases are rampant; and much of the population is engaged in subsistence farming of rice, yams and bananas.

The political picture is as grim as the economic one. The only former Spanish colony in sub-Saharan Africa, Equatorial Guinea gained independence in 1968. The country's first ruler was Francisco Macias Nguema, a West African version of Idi Amin who banned opposition parties and in 1970 appointed himself "President for Life"-the first of a string of self-decreed titles that included "Leader of Steel," "Implacable Apostle of Freedom" and "The Sole Miracle of Equatorial Guinea." As many as 50,000 people, roughly 10 percent of the population, were murdered during the Macias years-some were crucified along the road to the airport, for the benefit of visiting diplomats-and 80,000 fled the country. In 1979 the Sole Miracle was overthrown and subsequently executed by Obiang, his nephew.

Obiang was no reformer: As head of the National Guard and later commander of the armed forces, he played a major role in carrying out the terrible repression of the Macias years. And while he hasn't ruled as brutally as his predecessor, he's been sufficiently cruel that one Western diplomat has called him "a known murderer." The State Department's most recent report on worldwide human rights, released March 4, says that the government employs "the psychological effects of arrest, along with the fear of beatings and harassment, to intimidate opposition party officials and members," and that the country has never had a "free, fair and transparent" election. A case in point was Obiang's "re-election" to a seven-year term in 1996, which he won with 99.2 percent of the vote. Three years later his ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea won seventy-five of eighty seats contested in national legislative elections that were flagrantly rigged.

Obiang's economic record is also abysmal, and only the discovery of oil has prevented the country from sinking into complete misery. "It's a corrupt, rotten government," says Frank Ruddy, US ambassador to Equatorial Guinea during the Reagan years.

"The people there deserve better than the crooks they've got."

For years US officials looked upon the country as a laughingstock. Ruddy told the story of how one of Obiang's top aides, who was fortunate to benefit from diplomatic immunity, was once stopped at New York 's JFK airport with a suitcase full of marijuana. The police had little trouble making the bust: The aide's bag had a hole in the side, and he was trailing pot as he strolled through the terminal. There's a story famous in CIA circles about how two of Obiang's intelligence operatives came to Washington in the mid-1980s to meet top agency officials. The Guineans went shopping at a suburban Virginia mall beforehand and came to the meeting dressed in identical outfits: black business suits and electric Nike sneakers.

A less amusing illustration of the Obiang regime's nature came in 1994, when the US ambassador in Malabo , John Bennett, was threatened with death after calling for improved human rights conditions. The threat came in a message thrown from the window of a passing vehicle-which eyewitnesses said was driven by a government official-that warned Bennett, "You will go to America as a corpse." Two years later, the Clinton Administration shut down the US Embassy in Malabo, and relations have been handled from Cameroon ever since.

The Thaw

Just a few weeks after the embassy closed its doors, several US companies found significant petroleum reserves off the coast f Equatorial Guinea . Subsequent discoveries led firms such as ExxonMobil and Chevron, as well as small independents like Ocean Energy, Vanco and Triton, to invest a collective $ billion in Equatorial Guinea. Sweetening the deal for the ail companies is the fact that the Obiang regime gave them as much as 87 percent of the oil receipts. (That figure has now dropped to about 75 percent, but it's still far above what they get in much of the Third World , which is frequently 50 percent or less.)

As US economic interests grew, a slow political shift in Washington-Malabo relations emerged. In June of 2000, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation approved $373 million in loan guarantees for construction of a methanol plant in Equatorial Guinea , its largest program ever in sub-Saharan Africa . Two US companies-Noble Affiliates and Marathon-together hold an 86 percent share in the plant. Five months later, Louisiana Representative William Jefferson led the first-ever Congressional delegation to Equatorial Guinea , taking along representatives of Baton Rouge-based Shaw Global Energy Services. Several Congressional staffers also traveled to the country, among them Malik Chaka, a top aide to Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa . "There's still a great deal of room for improvement in terms of democracy and transparency, but they are desirous of closer relations with the United States ," he says. "We need to take advantage of that by working with them."

In general, though, the Clinton Administration did little to improve relations with Obiang. The primary reason, according to oil company officials, was opposition from Susan Rice, Clinton 's Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. "Obiang began to reach out in the late 1990s to improve his image, but there was little to suggest that there was any substance to it," she recounted during a recent interview. " Equatorial Guinea was a poster child of undemocratic practices."

All independent observers of Equatorial Guinea share that assessment. Freedom House, the conservative human rights organization, lumps the country in a group with North Korea , Burma , Iraq and a few other pariahs as the world's most oppressive regimes. The State Department's human rights report states, "The government's human rights record remained poor.... The security forces committed numerous abuses, including torture, beating, and other physical abuse of prisoners and suspects."

Bush official I spoke to said he didn't see any signs of improvement in the Obiang regime's practices, and he asserted that the Administration will not ignore human rights violations to accommodate the oil industry. "Our policy is to, I advance human rights and democracy," he said. "There's no trade-off here."

Despite such talk, there's been a marked if unpublicized improvement in Washington-Malabo ties since Bush took office. Last November Bush quietly authorized the opening of a new US Embassy in Malabo (one site being considered is on land owned by the oil companies), a huge victory for the Obiang regime. A well-placed government source told me that the Administration will soon remove Equatorial Guinea from a list of fourteen African nations that are barred on human rights grounds from receiving trade benefits under a bill passed by Congress in 2000. Meanwhile, the State Department has given the green light-barring unforeseen Congressional opposition-to a program under which Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI), a private firm led by high-ranking Pentagon retirees, will train a Guinean Coast Guard that can protect the offshore oilfields. "They do have a poor human rights record, but so did the Nazi government, and we did pretty well with Germany after World War II," says retired general Ed Soyster, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency who works at MPRI.

The political thaw has come in response to intense lobbying from the oil industry, which has sought to portray Obiang as a born-again reformer and, more credibly, Equatorial Guinea as a potentially huge new source of oil. "For a long time our relationship with Equatorial Guinea revolved around human rights," one oil company official told me. "That's a legitimate concern, but now that the energy picture is changing, that introduces something to balance out the dialogue."

It helps that the companies active in Equatorial Guinea have close ties to the Bush Administration. In addition to political heavyweights like ExxonMobil and Chevron, those firms include CMS Energy (which recently sold its holdings in Equatorial Guinea to Marathon ). CMS's CEO, William McCormick, gave $100,000 to the Bush-Cheney 2001 Presidential Inaugural Committee. Ocean Energy's consultant on its Malabo operations is Chester Norris, a former ambassador to Equatorial Guinea under George Bush Sr. Perhaps best connected of all is Triton, whose chairman, Tom Hicks, made Bush a millionaire fifteen times over when he bought the Texas Rangers in 1998. Hicks's leveraged buyout firm, Hicks Muse, is Bush's fourth-largest career financial patron, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Bush's decision to reopen the US Embassy was taken soon after he received a plea to do so from the oil industry. "It is important to underscore that most of the oil and gas concessions awarded in Equatorial Guinea to date, have been awarded to US firms," said a memo drafted on behalf of the oil companies and sent to Bush last year. "This is in stark contrast to neighboring countries in the region, where the United States has consistently lost out to French and other European and Asian competitors." Sisinio Mbana, first secretary at Equatorial Guinea 's embassy in Washington , told me that at least four Bush Administration officials have consulted with Guinean leaders, including two from the State Department who have met discreetly with Obiang. "The oil companies have done a lot for us," Mbana said. "The State Department gets its information about Equatorial Guinea from them."

In addition to direct lobbying, the oil industry sought to improve Obiang's image by hiring the services of Bruce McColm, a former head of Freedom House who now runs the Institute for Democratic Strategies (IDS), a Virginia-based nonprofit whose stated mission is "strengthening democratic institutions.

The Obiang regime's most tireless champion, McColm works closely with the government, which now pays him directly. (According to its latest nonprofit tax form, the IDS spent $223,000 in 2000, of which all but $10,000 went toward its Equatorial Guinea work.) In 2000 McColm sent a team of observers to monitor Equatorial Guinea 's municipal elections, which it reported to be basically free and fair. "Electoral officials should be recognized for discharging their responsibilities in an effective and transparent manner," said an IDS press release at the time. "Observers generally felt that the positives of this election far outweighed the negatives." This was in marked contrast to a UN report that said the electoral campaign "was characterized by the omnipresence of the [ruling] party, voting in public and the intimidating presence of the armed forces."

The oil companies have also worked through the Corporate Council on Africa , which represents companies with investments on the continent. Last year the council published a "Country Profile" of Equatorial Guinea , which was paid for by six oil companies and AfricaGlobal, a DC lobby shop at the time represented Obiang. The guidebook not only promotes the country as a new investment hot spot but also claims that the Obiang regime "has taken significant measures to encourage political diversity and address human and worker rights issues." On February 8, the council sponsored a private luncheon for Obiang, who was visiting Washington with a small entourage. The event was held in the chandeliered dining room of downtown Washington's Army-Navy Club, and each of the roughly fifty guests in attendance received a biography of Obiang, prepared by McColm's IDS, that describes him as the country's "first democratically elected president" and a man who has "embarked on the total physical reconstruction of his country and the improvement of the welfare of all its citizens."

Sporting gold-rimmed glasses and dressed in a blue suit with American and Guinean flag pins on the lapels, Obiang sat at the head table, where he was dwarfed by oilmen and State Department officials. During a lunch of fish stuffed with crabmeat and a custard tart with raspberry syrup, a procession of five corporate executives sought to outdo each other in heaping praise on Obiang and his nation. "It will be the Kuwait of Africa," gushed one of the speakers, Gene Van Dyke of Vanco. "It's a fabulous country." After presenting Obiang with a gift of a wood letterbox, Musselman of Triton thanked several members of the State Department for successfully pressing for the reopening of the US Embassy, including Robert Perry, Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, who nodded gratefully from the head table, and Assistant Secretary Kansteiner, whom Triton's CEO said "has been a bulldog on this."

When it came time for him to speak, the guest of honor- who looked vigorous despite suffering from cancer, for which he is periodically treated at the Mayo Clinic-spoke of his nation's growing ties to the United States . He urged firms from outside the oil industry to invest in Equatorial Guinea , saying emphatically, "We can promise American companies that their investments are guaranteed." Obiang also congratulated the American people for the great faith they displayed in the aftermath of September 11, and said that he too knew the importance of faith. "There was a time when we thought we didn't have oil," he said. "There was oil to the north, oil to the south, but none here. But I had faith-faith that Equatorial Guinea had oil."

Family Business

From a certain distance, Malabo is breathtaking: This island capital city is cut out of tropical forest and surrounded by volcanic mountains, including one that rises to about 10,000 feet . Palm trees line the hills above its horseshoe bay, and there's a postcard-perfect square in the center of town that is bounded by a beautifully restored Spanish church with two bell towers and an orange and white three-story colonial building that serves as Obiang's office. Several guards sit in front of the building's arched wooden doors, which are engraved with two golden lions and the words "Unidad Paz y Justicia." From up close, though, Malabo , which has about 50,000 residents, looks to have been in a state of decline ever since the Spanish withdrew more than thirty years ago. Most buildings, even government ministries, are crumbling and unpainted, there are only a few paved roads and the city has electricity only sporadically. Smoke rises from piles of. burning trash, which is also strewn down hillsides, where people pick through it looking for scraps.

Foreign oil workers, of whom there are several thousand, mostly Americans, live in guarded corporate compounds with tennis courts, swimming pools and other amenities. Foreigners aren't seen much in Malabo other than at a handful of restaurants that are considered "safe," like the Pizza Place , where many customers wear green, blue or orange jumpsuits issued by their respective employers. Foreign workers also frequent bars like La Bamba , which is run by a Chinese family and blares 1 970s rock by the likes of Peter Frampton, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Steely Dan. La Bamba and other bars that cater to the expat community also attract young prostitutes dressed in glittering miniskirts and high heels who are seeking a husband and a home abroad but are willing to settle for a good deal less.

Everywhere you look in Malabo there is a photograph of Obiang. His serene image stares out from billboards, from portraits that hang in most businesses-not having one can result in reprisals, so even government opponents prudently display one and from calendars that the government distributes in which he is joined by the First Lady. For the ultimate acolyte there's even a line of pants and shirts that have dozens of miniature Obiang faces spread across the fabric.

Many government ministers, judges and military officials have no education and no qualifications beyond the most important one-clan or personal ties to Obiang. "Go take a look at our armada down at the harbor," says one opposition figure- who like virtually everyone I spoke to was afraid to give his name-in a snide reference to the country's few patrol boats. All our officers are friends of the president. That's democracy, my friend."

Indeed, the country is effectively run as a family bank. The closer one's ties to Obiang-whose government took in about $200 million in petroleum revenues in 2001, a figure that could easily double this year-the bigger the share of the spoils. Gabriel, one of the president's two sons, is second in command but in effective control of the ministry of mines and energy, which oversees the oil sector. The second son, Teodoro, runs the ministry of forestry and the environment-which oversees the timber trade, the nation's only other valuable export-and in his spare time heads two domestic logging companies and an airline, as well as a music company called TNO in Beverly Hills, where he spends much of his time and owns a $6 million home. Teodoro is also a regular in New York-in 2000 he offered $11 million to buy a Fifth Avenue condominium owned by Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, only to be rebuffed by the board-and in Paris, where he is often seen driving his white Rolls Royce Barclays or yellow Lamborghini. Philippe Vasset, editor of the Paris-based Africa Energy Intelligence and an observer of Teodoro's notorious French shopping sprees and other excesses, calls him "the closest thing there is to an African oil sheik."

Spot any major new construction project or prominent business in Equatorial Guinea and it's almost certainly owned by or built for the benefit of Obiang and his cronies. The terminal at the Malabo International Airport is a dilapidated shack, yet a few hundred yards away sits a gleaming new presidential wing. On the road into town, soldiers guard two vast homes sitting across the road from each other: Obiang resides in one and the First Lady in the other. (Obiang has two wives; the second, who hails from Sao Tome and has lesser status, lives in a large if less ostentatious home a short distance away.) Gabriel Obiang lives in a new mansion that sits across from Paraiso, a gaudy new restaurant and club for the elite that also boasts a swimming pool, weight room and disco. It is owned by one of the president's brothers, as is the Hotel Bahia, which offers Malabo's finest if decidedly humble lodging. (It's also where Frederick Forsyth wrote The Dogs of War, his 1974 book about a small band of mercenaries who overthrow a corrupt African regime.) Rich Guineans live in a few exclusive communities, like Pequenha Espanha-Little Spain -which has a hilltop view of the ocean. SUVs are parked in front of the neighborhood's homes, and satellite dishes shine from the roofs. Cleaning, gardening and guard duty are handled by slum dwellers.

Yolanda Asumu, a South Carolina native who moved here eleven years ago with husband Severo-he handles government relations for Triton and is a close friend and tennis partner of Obiang's-says that oil has brought many benefits. When she arrived there were just a few dozen cars on the whole island; now the roads teem with vehicles. Communications a decade ago were so backward that making a long-distance call required ringing the operator in Bata, the biggest city on the mainland, who called back when a line was free. Today cell phones are considered de rigueur by the rich. "There are a lot more flights in and out of the country, so it's much easier to get to Europe or the United States ," she says. "Life here is better."

Few of the poor, who make up 90 percent of the population, would agree. I traveled through a good chunk of the poorer neighborhoods in Malabo and didn't see any sign of government investment. The oil companies pay extremely well by local standards-between $500 and $1,000 a month-but they have created relatively few jobs, as only a handful of Guineans have the training for the highly technical offshore work. Much of Malabo 's population is unemployed, or they work as street vendors. In the Los Angeles neighborhood there's a huge open market where hundreds of sellers sit under stalls topped with corrugated metal and sell shriveled tomatoes, pineapples, bananas, papaya and okra, as well as dried fish, and chicken feet and necks. Homes here-tiny wooden shacks or stucco structures that run back-to-back along the dirt roads-don't have running water, so residents rise at 5 AM to trudge to a well about a kilometer away.

Most people who live in Los Angeles can't afford electricity, so when the sun goes down, the shantytown is pitch dark apart from the candles and lanterns glowing behind windows. With the heat in the 80s even at night, just about everyone seeks relief outdoors. "Why look for work when there isn't any?" replied one 25-year-old woman sitting on a stool outside her home when I asked if she had a job. Her family-two kids and her husband, who drives a cab-eats a full meal once a day, typically a stew of yucca, plantains and malanga (a type of potato), with a sardine sauce. "There's only one way to find a better life; and that's to get out," says the woman, who hopes to join relatives who have left for neighboring African states or, better yet, a sister who married a German and moved to Frankfurt .

There's one paved road leading out of Malabo , and within twenty minutes you're traveling through lush forest. Conditions here and in other rural areas, where 70 percent of the population lives, are infinitely worse than in the city. Many villages don't have a school, and production of coffee, cocoa and other agricultural commodities has collapsed. People survive by hunting and gathering fruit in the woods, a state of affairs that has prompted a flood of migrants to move to the slums of Malabo in the remote but alluring hope of finding work with an oil company. In one roadside village of half a dozen houses, a few residents sell bunches of crabs hanging from wood posts, plantains and papayas. An old man returns from the forest carrying a basket full of snails over one shoulder and a bag filled with wild rats-killed by one well-placed whack to the ear with a machete over the other. When I ask him how oil has changed life here, I get a blank face for an answer.

Democracy, Obiang Style

Soldiers are a common if not pervasive sight on the streets of Malabo , and security is tight, particularly as several coup plots, organized abroad by exile groups, have been busted up the past few years by authorities in Angola and Nigeria . The biggest threat to Obiang, though, comes from within his own clan, as fighting has erupted over who is to get the biggest share of the petroleum spoils. Lacking confidence in the loyalty of his own troops, Obiang depends for his primary protection on roughly 100 Moroccans, provided by the former king, Hassan, who serve as the regime's praetorian guard. When Obiang is at his office or the nearby presidential palace, the surrounding area is sealed off. One day, unaware that Musselman and John Hess were meeting with Obiang, I asked a cabdriver to take me to the church off the main square. When we got close, the driver spotted a group of armed men standing by a squadron of five SUVs, and he quickly turned tail.

Democracy appears to be spreading about as slowly as the oil wealth. Guineans can choose among two TV and two radio stations-in both cases the government operates one and Teodoro Obiang the other. There are no daily newspapers, and the few publications that do circulate offer fawning praise of the regime. La Gaceta de Guinea Ecuatorial, a glossy monthly, is filled with interviews with government officials and local businessmen. The ministry of information sells Ebano, a thin newsletter; the issue I bought, for about $1, hailed Teodoro as "the minister most loved by the people for his pragmatic, humanitarian and very dynamic character." Criticism of the government is rare but tolerated-one article in Ebano denounced official corruption and said some officials "consider themselves to have won the lottery"-but direct criticism of Obiang is forbidden.

Obiang did legalize political parties in the early 1990s, though by then many prominent opposition figures had fled abroad and remained fearful of returning. The government has also banned a number of parties, and others have waited years to be recognized. Of twelve authorized opposition parties that do function, eleven have aligned themselves with the Obiang regime, after receiving cash payoffs and other blandishments.

Rafael, a tall man with flecks of white in his beard, belongs to the Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS), the one opposition group that has refused to work with the government. Until a few years ago, he said, it was a crime to greet a member of the opposition. Obiang has lifted that law, as well as one that banned opposition members from owning a business or working (public sector jobs and some private-sector positions still require ruling party membership). "The government has taken some important steps," he says. "At least they are willing to talk to the opposition."

Rafael escorted me to an interview with the CPDS's leader, Placido Mico, who was jailed and tortured in 1993 and has been detained periodically since then. We met at party headquarters, a few rooms on the second floor of a run-down residential building. There's a desk at the front of the main room, upon which sits an old manual typewriter, and about fifteen school chairs. This, pretty much, constitutes the party's assets. Mico, 38, a short man neatly dressed in slacks and a short-sleeved dress shirt, and wearing glasses with one lens cracked, looks like a high school teacher, which is what he was before he ran afoul of the authorities. He is dubious of the government's political "opening," particularly as the oil bonanza has left Obiang less dependent on the kindness of foreign donors. "When you need aid you are more sensitive to international criticism," he says. "The government now has its own money and doesn't have to listen to anyone."

Mico's party has virtually no access to the media. It does put out its own publication, La Verdad (The Truth), a few times a year. The latest issue has been set to go to press for a week, but the party hasn't been able to print it because the city has been virtually without electricity. CPDS members can generally circulate freely in Malabo and Bata, but not in the rest of the country. And even in Bata, two party members have been in jail for the past four months, charged with "defaming the head of state." "If we send people to villages, the authorities will ask them for authorization papers," Mico says. "There's a climate here of intimidation and fear."

In many ways, that intimidation is directed more at the general population than at the political opposition. I heard an eyewitness account of a recent incident that took place in the small town of Luba. There a soldier shot a man drinking in a bar after he complained about the city's shortage of electricity. The man lay bleeding in the street for an hour before security forces allowed him to be moved to a hospital, where he died a short time later.

'The Land of the Future'

To travel to Bata, I boarded an old Soviet Antonov plane whose pilots, a pair of Russians, took tickets on the tarmac and helped to seat passengers as well. Forty-five minutes after take off we landed in the city, which turns out to be similar to Malabo, only larger, poorer and hotter. The oceanfront Pan Africa Hotel, unofficial headquarters of the expat community, sits near the National Stadium, where on Christmas of 1975 Macias executed 150 political prisoners as a military band played "Those Were the Days." Now the stadium is used for soccer matches; in a few days a local team will play host to a club from Libya.

Though not as numerous as in Malabo, there are plenty of foreign businessmen in Bata chasing after the government's oil dollars. At the Pan Africa's bar, which plays bland tunes by bands like Maele and La Orquestra Machosky International- who like most Guinean musicians sing the praises of Obiang and the ruling party-I met a Portuguese contractor who has been picked to construct several new government buildings. The contractor, who had spent the previous nine years in Gabon ("a paradise next to here"), has met Obiang five times and calls him "fabulous, like a daddy." The problem, though, is that he still needs signatures and approvals at the ministerial level, which he's been expecting for almost a year. "The country is very rich suddenly, but the mentality remains the same," he says with a shake of his head. "But it is the land of the future, and I will stay and wait."

Across from the Pan Africa is a neatly painted health clinic operated by Spanish nuns. I know even before asking, because they provide most social services in the country, and the building is too well maintained to be run by the government. Dozens of people are standing outside, while in the waiting room mothers are changing their babies on long brown benches. A worker at the clinic, which is subsidized by Triton, says the nuns feed about forty malnourished children and see up to seventy patients daily.

After hailing a cab, I drive through the center of town. A pair of young barefoot boys are selling picapica-skewers of meat- by a square with a monument of a soldier atop a pedestal that carries the words To THOSE WHO DIED FOR A BETTER GUINEA, AUGUST 3, 1979-the date of Obiang's coup against Macias. Not far away, there's a crowd milling around a small auditorium. Inside, hundreds of people are sitting on folding chairs, all eyes focused on a small TV. Obiang, in a speech before government officials taped weeks earlier, is explaining why he found it necessary to rescind a 200 percent pay increase that had been announced for federal workers. There is silence in the audience of public employees but thunderous applause from the TV.

Heading away from the central part of the city, we enter an area of large mansions, including one that Teodoro is building atop a hill that offers a view of the area. His new estate-which will replace his current beachfront mansion-is so vast that the construction crew has brought a crane to the site to build it. I've been told that Teodoro has a following among the poor, whom he charnpions during his constant appearances on government news broadcasts, but it still comes as a shock when the driver says that the president's son "has a lot of love for the people." Descending the hilltop, we stop by the driver's home, which is in a slum far worse than any I saw in Malabo. Most people live in mud-and-wattle huts, and when we entered his shack-bare apart from a few old pieces of furniture and sacks of cement piled in a corner-his wife was sprawled on a shaggy couch while their three naked children, all with distended bellies, sat on the floor. Later that day I told a longtime foreign resident of Equatorial Guinea about my day. "The worst part about this," he replied' "is that with the riches this country has, Guineans could live better than people in Monaco. Instead they live worse than people in refugee camps."

In mid-March, about ten days after I returned to the United States from Equatorial Guinea, security forces there seized dozens of people who were accused of plotting against the government. The Obiang regime refused to provide information on the whereabouts of the detainees-including a pregnant woman-though some were reportedly being held in the presidential palace in Bata. "The fact that the families [of the detainees] are being denied access to their relatives and that nobody knows where they are currently held has led to fears that some of them may already have died under torture," Amnesty International said in a press release. Placido Mico was not arrested, but the government accused him and other party leaders of having ties to the detainees and warned that the CPDS could be outlawed.

Faced with these domestic responsibilities, Obiang had to cancel a scheduled trip to attend the United Nations Development Conference in Monterrey, Mexico. There he was to have met with US Secretary of State Colin Powell at a Corporate Council on Africa fete. It was a definite setback for improved Washington-Malabo ties, but with the oil companies regularly announcing new finds and the US Embassy expected to reopen later this year, it's likely to be a temporary one.

The Nation magazine, April 22, 2002 / This article was prepared by Silverstein with a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, with additional support from the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

 


 

 

 

Ken Silverstein is an American editor covering the Washington bureau for Harper's Magazine. Petroleumworld does not necessarily share these views.

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