Jacob Zuma's cosy relationship with Obiang can be leveraged to bring about democratic change.
I have always thought of the new South Africa as a beacon of freedom and democracy, and more recently as a continental leader. But the ongoing rapprochement between the governments of South Africa and Equatorial Guinea has called my judgment into question.
Since 2009, President Jacob Zuma and his Equatoguinean counterpart, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, have exchanged many visits and grown closer.
Obiang is the world’s longest-serving ruler, who will soon mark the 35th anniversary of the coup that brought him to power. His family is accused of embezzling millions from the Equatoguinean state, and is the subject of judicial investigations in France, Spain and the United States.
At all levels, the differences between South Africa and Equatorial Guinea are acute. Since 1994, South Africa has held five free and fair general elections. It has a free media, with dozens of newspapers and more than 100 television and radio stations, and hundreds of nongovernmental organisations. There are 13 parties in Parliament, and the judiciary and Constitution are globally distinguished.
The situation in Equatorial Guinea, my home, is the opposite. A West African nation of about 700 000 people, it is a textbook case of the “resource curse”. It is one of the largest oil producers in sub-Saharan Africa. Its gross domestic product per capita is on a par with Saudi Arabia’s and more than twice South Africa’s.
But two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line, with limited access to clean drinking water and adequate plumbing. It has one of the world’s lowest levels of primary school enrolment and a disproportionately high child-death rate – twice as high as South Africa’s.
In short, socioeconomic conditions for most of the population are worse than in many African countries with far fewer resources. Instead of benefiting the people, vast sums from Equatorial Guinea’s oil revenues have been spent on lavish purchases by the presidential family.
Equatorial Guinea has been under Obiang’s personal rule since he overthrew his uncle in 1979. Since then, he has promoted himself from lieutenant colonel to four-star general and consolidated all the military power in his family. Similarly, he has centralised political and economic power in a small group of family and members of his clan.
His son, Teodorin, is the vice-president for national security. Another son, Gabriel, is the minister of mines and hydrocarbons, and other relatives occupy strategic ministerial and government agency positions.
Freedom of association and assembly are severely curtailed, greatly limiting the space for independent groups. There are no labour unions or human rights organisations. There is one state-owned radio and television station; the only other TV station is private and belongs to one of the president’s sons.
There are no independent newspapers or news publications in the country, and local journalists are unable to criticise the government or address issues the authorities disapprove of without risk of censorship or reprisal.
The political opposition is subjected to arbitrary arrest, intimidation and harassment. The country’s bicameral Parliament, with 170 seats in total, has only one opposition representative in each chamber.
The presidential family uses parliamentary seats to reward loyalty. Similarly, judges are hand-picked by the president and are dismissed at whim. Forced evictions, arbitrary detentions and torture by security forces are rampant.
Despite this record, Equatorial Guinea’s relationship with South Africa is strong. In October 2011, Zuma welcomed Obiang to South Africa, calling him his “dear brother and friend” and vowing to “learn from [Equatorial Guinea], given the massive infrastructure developments underway [in South Africa]”.
This followed Zuma’s trip to Equatorial Guinea in 2009, a visit from Obiang to South Africa during the 2010 World Cup and Zuma’s second visit to Equatorial Guinea in June 2011. Since then, Zuma and Obiang have exchanged annual visits and have signed co-operation agreements.
A 2006 lawsuit to attach Teodorin’s two mansions in Cape Town to pay debts owed to South African investors in Equatorial Guinea seems to have vanished.
Meanwhile, despite being judicially investigated in France and the US for embezzlement, fraud and money laundering, Teodorin has been able to travel freely to South Africa – even though an international arrest warrant was pending against him.
In July last year, Zuma received Teodorin on an official visit aimed at “strengthening of the excellent diplomatic relations and co-operation” between the two nations. As if that wasn’t enough, South Africa’s secretary for defence, Sam Makhudu Gulube, and the directors of defence equipment manufacturer Denel also received Teodorin during his visit.
The Equatoguinean government said on its website that the objective of this visit was to “study the possibility of reaching an agreement to acquire military equipment”.
Most Equatoguineans see South Africa as a nation built on constitutional democracy and human rights, with a vibrant civil society and a strong economy. We look at South Africa’s role at the African Union (AU) and in the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping and expect moral leadership from it on the African continent.
Equatorial Guinea will hold presidential elections sometime between November 2015 and December 2016. Now is the time for South Africa, the AU and the international community, and particularly those countries benefiting from Equatorial Guinea’s natural resources, to help tip the balance in favour of democratic reforms.
They could lead a genuine effort to facilitate dialogue between the government and political opposition groups in Equatorial Guinea and abroad. They could work with all national parties and civil society to reform its crooked electoral system and eliminate voter fraud, intimidation and irregularities. They could support civil society projects designed to strengthen citizen participation in holding the government accountable.
Nelson Mandela once said: “It always seems impossible until it is done.”
What passes for government in Equatorial Guinea is a façade of outward respectability. Zuma’s relationship with it gives South Africa the opportunity to push for what seems impossible – true reform.
We do not need military equipment. We need freedom and democracy, things South Africa knows a lot about.
Tutu Alicante is the founder and executive director of EG Justice, a nonprofit organisation for human rights, the rule of law and civic participation in Equatorial Guinea