/ 30 June 2011

Equatorial Guinea steadies itself for Africa’s big stage

Turkish and Chinese workers put finishing touches on towering new buildings as delegations of dignitaries sweep up a gleaming, flag-draped six-lane highway and a navy warship lurks just offshore.

Equatorial Guinea is racing to prepare for this year’s African Union summit, starting on Thursday, which it hopes will mark its arrival on the continent’s big stage, but which critics complain has turned into an outlandish expense eating up funds that should have been spent on the country’s poor.

“This is about the projection of Equatorial Guinea,” said Alex Vines, head of the Africa Programme at the UK-based Chatham House think-tank.

As Africa’s sole former Spanish colony and one of its smallest states, nestling between Cameroun and Gabon with a population of 650 000, the country has often seemed isolated.

It endured one of the continent’s most brutal dictatorships under Francisco Macias Nguema, who was overthrown by current President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in 1979.

The discovery of oil in the 1990s, mainly with the backing of US oil companies now helping it pump 250 000 barrels per day, thrust it into the heart of the Gulf of Guinea oil-producing club.

But Equatorial Guinea is dogged by accusations of rights abuses and corruption, and security fears dictate much of the government’s policy agenda.

Vines said the summit, which will be followed by the hosting of Africa’s Cup of Nations football tournament next year, are big steps for the small nation.

Punching above its weight
“There is a sense of being very small and dwarfed by neighbours so it is employing a defensive strategy of diversifying allies and punching above its weight,” he said.

US firms dominate the oil industry, but offices of Arab, French and Chinese construction companies in the city point to who was behind new government buildings, fountains and flyovers that have sprouted between the old town and the cloud-shrouded volcano behind it.

US contractors, as well as French, Israelis, Moroccans and Eastern Europeans have helped bolster security after a botched 2004 coup led by former British Special Forces officer Simon Mann, and a 2009 seaborne raid that struck at the heart of the capital.

The two foreign-led plots have done little to ease the government’s suspicion of foreigners.

Destination Malabo?
African leaders are meant to focus on “Youth and Sustainable Development” during the AU summit, though conflicts in Libya and Somalia, Sudan’s impending split and climate change are likely to sidetrack the talks.

However, it is the location, as much as the content of the meetings, that has stirred controversy so far.

The newly constructed Sipopo resort, built on a former cocoa plantation, is home to the conference centre, a collection of luxury villas for each of the visiting presidents and a five star hotel with its own spa, golf course and a man-made beach.

“The Obiang government hopes that foreign visitors will be favourably impressed by the deluxe facilities built for their enjoyment,” said Tutu Alicante, executive director of US-based EG Justice.

“Visitors should instead question why the government is building villas for the rich while Equatorial Guinea’s poor live in slums without reliable electricity or drinking water,” he said.

Equatorial Guinea is one of Africa’s wealthiest states with a GDP per capita higher than that of Saudi Arabia, according to latest World Bank figures, but critics argue that all but a handful of the country’s elite live in poverty.

The government, which often disputes figures on development, has rejected the criticism saying groups were seeking to gain publicity with unfair attacks, and that Equatoguineans enjoyed “envied” status around the world.

“The construction of Sipopo meets the objective of promoting and enhancing tourism as a necessary part of economic diversification,” the government said in a statement. It has said it spent €580-million on the project.

A development plan has set exclusive tourism, fishing and agriculture as post-oil priorities for the economy.

Equatoguineans are cut off from the resort by a series of check points and strict policing.

“These things, they are magnificent. I hear Sipopo is even more so,” said a city resident who, like most, asked not to give his name, gazing at new government buildings and recently-completed social housing projects for delegates and journalists.

“If it shows what we can do, then it is good. But they are spending lots of money.” – Reuters