Washington Keeps Falling for Equatorial Guinea’s Aging Dictator

In late September, the world’s longest-reigning dictator, Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, announced that he would run again in the country’s November 20 elections. Obiang is already 80 years old and is Africa’s second-oldest president, behind only his authoritarian neighbor in Cameroon, Paul Biya, who came to power three years after Obiang’s 1979 coup.

Since Obiang’s surprise announcement – which brought the country’s elections forward by a year – more than 100 people, including lawyers, judges and activists from civil society and the political opposition, have been arbitrarily arrested. Some dissidents were tortured by members of Obiang’s security apparatus. And just last week it was reported that at least five opposition figures were murdered after state security forces raided the home of a dissident political leader. These are all too common occurrences in Equatorial Guinea, which are mutedly talked about domestically and little, if at all, internationally.

Conveniently, just days before announcing his seventh presidential candidacy, Obiang signed a new penal code that purports to abolish the death penalty. That was no coincidence. In fact, it was probably intentional, a step straight out of The Dictator’s Handbook: flood the zone with what appears to be “historic and memorable” news, collect the global accolades, then quickly move forward to consolidate political power by using all of them shattered by opposing voices.

At the end of September, the longest reigning dictator in the world­­­­ Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea announced that he would be running again in the country’s November 20 elections. Obiang is already 80 years old and is Africa’s second-oldest president, behind only his authoritarian neighbor in Cameroon, Paul Biya, who came to power three years after Obiang’s 1979 coup.

Since Obiang’s surprise announcement – which brought the country’s elections forward by a year – more than 100 people, including lawyers, judges and activists from civil society and the political opposition, have been arbitrarily arrested. Some dissidents were tortured by members of Obiang’s security apparatus. And just last week it was reported that at least five opposition figures were murdered after state security forces raided the home of a dissident political leader. These are all too common occurrences in Equatorial Guinea, which are mutedly talked about domestically and little, if at all, internationally.

Conveniently, just days before announcing his seventh presidential candidacy, Obiang signed a new penal code that purports to abolish the death penalty. That was no coincidence. In fact, it was probably intentional, a step straight out of The Dictator’s Handbook: flood the zone with what appears to be “historic and memorable” news, collect the global accolades, then quickly move forward to consolidate political power by using all of them shattered by opposing voices.

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This is a trick Obiang has played on several occasions, and it keeps working on US government officials. For decades, the Obiang regime has promised but failed to implement substantive reforms, choosing instead to prioritize superficial improvements whose only real impact is the headlines generated in the Western media.

The United States has consistently been one of Obiang’s staunchest diplomatic and financial supporters, despite nearly half a century of gross human rights abuses, a clearly oppressive autocratic regime, and fierce repression of fundamental liberties that have destabilized a nation and robbed its people of their people’s free will. In fact, US FDI in Equatorial Guinea has steadily increased since 2016 and during the Biden administration, and now stands at nearly $1 billion. A year ago, Obiang even received a high-level US delegation made up of senior officials from the Biden administration. Obiang was also a regular at the White House.

The United States, of course, has long boasted of supporting democracy and its defenders beyond American borders. In August, US President Joe Biden identified three key priorities that would guide his term: “fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and promoting human rights.”

In many countries, including Equatorial Guinea, citizens are both skeptical and jaded. There are few countries where the gap between US rhetoric and action is so great. And it is in this void that tyrants like Obiang operate adeptly, becoming more ruthless and courageous over time as the rift widens.

There are two main reasons for this gap between democratic rhetoric and realpolitik when it comes to Equatorial Guinea. The first is simple: oil and continued US access to it.

Many of the world’s largest energy companies – such as ExxonMobil, Marathon Oil, Hess and Noble Energy – have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the country, helping to build a multi-billion dollar economy entirely dependent on petrodollars in the hands of the United States kleptocratic regime that plunders with impunity while its citizens are among the poorest in Africa. These corporations form the basis of a US foreign policy that is inextricably linked to so-called energy security. And as one of us argued back in 2017, when former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson was appointed US Secretary of State, energy security has too often trumped important efforts to protect human rights, democracy and fight corruption.

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The second reason is perhaps less obvious: China’s role and its aggressive military and economic expansion far beyond its traditional sphere of influence.

Indeed, China has exacerbated an already grim situation in Equatorial Guinea, identifying the country as a prime location for its first-ever Atlantic military base, alarming US officials and prompting a high-level government visit last October, the centerpiece of which was to discuss “maritime security.” In this regard, Obiang signed a $2 billion infrastructure deal with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. And Chinese companies have signed a preliminary agreement to build the first oil refinery in Equatorial Guinea.

This strengthened economic foothold, backed by a robust military presence, will have a profoundly negative impact on Equatorial Guinea’s already dire state. Studies have shown, for example, that as Chinese aid to an African country increases, so does state violence. That prospect is further complicated by Obiang’s likely successor as president, his son and vice president Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, who is a poster child for corruption and looting — not to mention a global criminal.

The United States, of course, understands the importance of a possible Chinese military base in Equatorial Guinea and cites it as a threat to national security. For this reason, the US Navy — in both 2021 and 2022 — conducted visits to the strategic city of Bata under the convenient guise of “building our partnership.” These high-level visits followed a 12-year period during which the Navy made a total of zero visits to any of Equatorial Guinea’s naval bases.

Herein lies the problem: although the stated goals of the US government – including in Biden’s recently unveiled strategy for sub-Saharan Africa – are to prioritize democracy and human rights, US officials appear to act only when their economic or military capabilities are threatened . This reactive and short-sighted preference has paralyzed US foreign policy for decades, particularly when it comes to Africa. By taking a more proactive stance on authoritarianism—and the corruption and human rights abuses that inevitably result from it—the US government can work to uphold the ideals and achieve the policy outcomes that have been clearly articulated by the Biden administration, and those who support it do came before.

At the national level, promoting human rights in Equatorial Guinea means strongly condemning gross violations when they occur in real time – like today. The killings and reports of torture and arrests of civil society activists, members of the opposition group Ciudadanos por la Innovación, lawyers, prosecutors and judges should be publicly condemned as a egregious attack on the rule of law. Importantly, these transgressions by the Obiang regime should be enough to justify the autocrat’s refusal to attend the US-Africa leadership summit, to be held in December and hosted by Biden. Indeed, US travel bans are mandatory when the US State Department has credible information about corruption or human rights abuses. Both categories clearly apply to Obiang – this is evident every year in the State Department’s annual country reports on human rights practices.

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The Biden administration could also set up a governance reform fund, using a significant portion of proceeds accrued to the US Department of Justice in a case against the US-based assets of Equatorial Guinea’s vice president. This would allow the US government to take real action in support of its rhetoric by investing resources to both encourage and support independent civil society participation in the areas of human rights protection, anti-corruption and the rule of law.

There is precedent for the United States using the proceeds recovered from corruption — as it did just this year in Nigeria — to set up funds designed to improve the lives of citizens who are victims of government corruption. It would also fulfill a long-standing promise by the United States to use recovered proceeds of corruption to benefit harmed populations – a key part of the principles adopted at the 2017 US-hosted Global Forum on Asset Recovery Driving this consistently builds trust of the people into American government – both in Equatorial Guinea and worldwide – by instilling the belief that their ideals are not empty words but concrete goals backed by action.

The real long-term national security threat is not China flexing its muscles in far-flung countries like Equatorial Guinea. It is the United States that is retreating in a way that is leading people worldwide — especially those holding out under authoritarian oppression — to view American leadership as hypocritical at best, or downright unreliable at worst.

Democratic backsliding is on the rise around the world, a trend that has been evident for nearly two decades, and it is high time that America rose to the occasion and delivered on its promises to protect human rights and democracy through action. In Equatorial Guinea, the United States can and should stand on these principles.

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