Scars of recognition

The trial of the 14 foreigners accused of attempting to overthrow the government of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea last March has thrust the notoriously repressive regime on to the international stage.

However, while the spotlight shines into the rat-infested cell the alleged mercenaries share in the notorious Black Beach prison, the political prisoners arrested two years ago remain mouldering in the shadows.

Human rights lawyer Fabian Nguema Obono says scores of political prisoners are held in the same small cells at Black Beach as the foreigners, where torture is de rigeur.

“The last time I was in prison, they whipped my hands with electric cables so badly I could not even sign a confession,” he recalls. “Ondo Nkum, the director of prison security, was in the room, personally directing what they should do to me.” The current Minister of Security, Manuel Nguema Mba, was also there, he said.

Obono was beaten, whipped and tortured using electric shocks. Dark scars mark his elbows where the electric cables were attached. “In Equatorial Guinea, we recognise these scars on each other. They show you have been to see the police,” he says.

Two years later Obono cannot make a fist or straighten his fingers; his handwriting wanders across the page in large, unformed letters.

He counts off some of those currently in jail on his fingers. Weja Chicampo, an activist arrested on March 3, is held in Black Beach. His family say his jaw was broken during the arrest, but no lawyer has been allowed to see him. He has not been charged.

Bienvenido Samba Momesori, a Protestant pastor, was arrested last October. He is held with the majority of other political prisoners, including Felipe Ondó Obiang, leader of opposition party FDR, in Evinayong prison on continental Equatorial Guinea.

“It’s where they put people they want to forget about,” he explained. No one knows how many people are held in Equatorial Guinea’s continental section; no journalist has been there for years.

Even moving outside the country’s capital on the island of Bioko is forbidden for the foreign press. Last week two British journalists who tried were arrested and their translator beaten up by the police. Another journalist was detained by the military for talking on the phone in the street.

The security services are impossible to avoid. Men in uniforms, armed with Kalashnikovs, dot the intersections throughout the capital. Local reporters do not face the same problem; there is not a newspaper or bookstore in the entire country.

Occasionally government paranoia takes on elements of the absurd. At Hotel Bahia, one of Equatorial Guinea’s plushest hotels, the rustle of the palms blends with the whispers of secret agents and government spies. Heavyset men in dark suits strain to eavesdrop on conversations between strangers. In the harbour below lies the rusting remains of the island’s fishing fleet, dynamited by the previous ruler to prevent a rumoured coup.

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who murdered his uncle to seize power in 1979, is protected by an elite Moroccan bodyguard and travels in a convoy of 12 vehicles with blacked-out windows and wailing sirens. The roads are cleared well before the president leaves his palace, and the tiny capital Malabo, with a population of only 80 000, suffers traffic jams every time he moves.

Control of Africa’s third-largest oil exporter is made even more attractive by the low 20% royalty bonus, the tax that oil producers pay to the government. In neighbouring Nigeria the oil tax can reach 74% of production costs.

The need for energy, security and the drive to reduce dependence on oil from the Middle East has increased the region’s strategic importance. Sources say South Africa’s tip-off about the impending coup to the Equatorial Guinean authorities may have been motivated by anxiety about tomorrow’s oil supplies as much as a new spirit of pan-African cooperation.

“The surrounding countries like Nigeria, and even countries in the European Union, cosy up to Obiang now that he’s got money,” said Placido Mico Abogo, the secretary general of the Convergence for Social Democracy Party, the country’s largest opposition party. “Now that Obiang has money, he can pay off the [International Monetary Fund] and World Bank and does not need loans from them. And they stop pressuring him to change.”

Mico Abogo was one of 68 opposition leaders arrested at the time of the 2002 elections. Thirty-two are still in prison, convicted of a plot against Obiang after a trial held in a movie theatre based on confessions signed under torture.

Two years later and more men are on trial for another coup attempt. More confessions have been allegedly tortured out of the defendants; South African Sergio Cardoso burst out last week: “I want to emphasise the person who tortured me is here in court, he was there when I was being questioned … I have the scars and I can show them.”

The venue may have shifted from a disused movie hall to a glitzy international conference centre, but the theatre remains the same.

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Katharine Houreld
Guest Author

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