The Achilles heel of Equatorial Guinea’s dictator

Jul 22, 2004 02:00 AM

Legal action in Spain and the United States taking aim at secret bank accounts of President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea could become a weapon to help put an end to his 25-year dictatorship, say opposition leaders and activists from the West African nation.
The trials could mark the beginning of the end for a dictatorship "which has turned the country into one enormous prison", said Celestino Okenve, head of the Madrid-based non-governmental group Equatorial Guinea Solidarity Forum (FSGE), which will be lodging a lawsuit in the Spanish courts.

Prisons in Equatorial Guinea hold between 50 and 100 political prisoners to a cell "and the entire national territory has been converted into a prison for the rest of the population" of about half-a-million people, he said. There is no freedom of speech or movement in Equatorial Guinea, it is impossible to discuss politics and there are police and military checkpoints every 20 km to 30 km, he added.
The US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations reported that there are about $ 700 mm in bank accounts in the Washington-based Riggs Bank in the name of Obiang, his family and associates, with deposits or transfers coming in from US oil companies. The investigation by Democratic Senator Carl Levin also uncovered secret bank accounts belonging to former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) in the same bank.

Severo Moto, leader of the opposition Party for Progress of Equatorial Guinea and president of the Guinean government in exile -- set up in Madrid -- said Obiang should stand down immediately. But as that is not on the cards, the opposition should unite and support the legal action in order "to get rid of this heartless thief who fills his pockets and those of his associates while the people suffer hunger and destitution, even though our country is a very rich nation", he stated.
This tiny nation on Africa's Atlantic coast was a Portuguese colony until 1778 and a Spanish enclave until independence in 1968. It underwent a radical change of fortune in the 1990s when rich oil deposits were discovered.

Oil sales began to surpass traditional exports of cacao, coffee and timber and the country's gross domestic product grew by 71,2 % in 1997, 22 % in 1998 and 15 % in 1999. In 2001, natural gas was also discovered and a new economic upsurge began. In 1998, the International Monetary Fund reported that Obiang "simply pocketed $ 96 mm" of the total $ 136 mm in oil revenues, said Moto.
The important factor in the new court cases is that they are based on lawsuits brought by NGOs such as the FSGE, which means the dictator cannot argue that they amount to "retaliation by the opposition", he said.

The FSGE will bring a criminal prosecution in the Spanish courts, calling for investigation of Obiang's bank accounts in Spain, "as US investigations have already provided some leads", said Okenve.
Moto said the April 25 legislative and municipal elections in Equatorial Guinea were fraudulent and that the United Nations "left Obiangwith a free hand to torture prisoners and submit them to farcical trials with no political guarantees", because no mechanisms were put in place to monitor human rights during the election process.

Placido Mico, leader of the opposition Convergence Party for Social Democracy, said he hopes Madrid will begin an investigation along the lines of the US probe to verify whether Obiang used Spanish banks to open accounts "within or outside Spain", in one of the world's tax havens, for example.
Spain has the necessary mechanisms to undertake an investigation and events in the US prove "Obiang used oil money to benefit himself, his family and associates, rather than for developing the country", said Mico.

Obiang, meanwhile, is playing on his abundant oil reserves. The oil fields are currently exploited by French and US companies, but their Spanish counterparts would like a share of the action. Also, hundreds of Spanish missionaries work in Equatorial Guinea, mainly as teachers for marginalized populations. The NGOs and church groups that provide the volunteers say their lives could be endangered if Obiang feels harassed by Madrid and the Spanish courts.
In Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, Minister of Information and government spokesperson Alfonso Nsue Mokuy criticised the Spanish media, which provided coverage of the US Senate report. He said the Spanish media "always went out of their way to broadcast information that confused opinion at home and abroad with the single aim of destabilising the democratic political regime of Equatorial Guinea for hidden and undeclared interests".

Scant information enters the West African nation from abroad. The little that does mainly comes through the international channel of the Spanish public station Television Espanola.
"Obiang is now studying the forced removal of TV receiver antennae," said Okenve.
The Guinean government in exile is backed by a coalition of the Progress Party, Popular Action of Equatorial Guinea and the Liberal Party. Mico's Convergence Party for Social Democracy is not included. The West African country -- where Spanish is the predominant language as well as the official language along with French -- has been ruled by Obiang since 1979, when he led a coup that overthrew his uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema, who governed with an iron fist since the declaration of independence in 1968.

Obiang has won all presidential elections since 1984 with nearly 100 % of the vote. There is no secret ballot.
The opposition groups say the people live under a reign of terror, and demand that Obiang resign and that free elections be held.

Source: Mail and Guardian Online
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