Analysis: Equatorial Guinea fights image problem with ‘Dubai’ vision

Gleaming new buildings, multi-lane highways and talk of becoming a regional trade hub tell one side of the story. Aggressive security checks, hushed talk of corruption and a UN report on torture tell the other.
Reuters reports Equatorial Guinea has bold, oil- and gas-fuelled hopes to become Africa’s Dubai, but a shortage of skills, a distrusting, all-powerful government and a tumultous, coup-ridden history all weigh on the former Spanish colony’s lofty aspirations.
“As a colony and afterwards, we had some of the worst dictators in the world,” said Alfredo Okenve, a member of CEID, a rare local civil society group, referring to Spanish rule and then post-independence President Francisco Macias Nguema.
“Whatever change we have had is progress, but the changes have been slow.”
Current President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo seized power from Macias in a 1979 coup and, after oil started pumping in the mid-1990s, now rules a nation of around 500,000 people that has become Sub-Saharan Africa’s third biggest oil producer.
Ostensibly, change has not been that slow, with oil and gas production leaping from virtually nothing in the early 1990s to around 450 000 barrels of oil equivalent per day last year.
The coffers have swelled as a result. The IMF estimates official foreign assets had jumped to US$7.1 billion by the end of 2007 from under US$1 billion at the end of 2003.
Capital expenditure has also surged from under 40 billion CFA (US$82 million) in 1999, to 1300 billion in 2008 and a proposed 2000 billion CFA this year, the IMF says.
Thousands of Chinese and Egyptian workers have flooded to the country, building entire cities with ministries, new housing projects and model schools aimed at modernising a country that has languished at the bottom of most development indicators.
The aim, say ministers, is to use money well to avoid the “resources curse”, laying the foundations for a diversified economy by promoting fisheries, agriculture and services and turning the nation into an emerging economy by 2020.
“The resources will be exhausted one day … we should start the diversification of the economy,” Jose Ela Oyana, minister of planning and economic development, told visiting gas executives.
“Equatorial Guinea will be a business centre in 2020,” he added, citing Dubai as a role model.
Billions of dollars have been spent on the ports of Malabo (pictured) and Bata, which the government hopes will become shipping hubs.
Members of President Obiang’s close or extended family hold key positions in the security and energy sectors, prompting accusations of corruption from international resource watchdogs.
As evidence it is serious about showing openness, the government cites its steps to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which sets standards for companies to publish what they pay for oil, gas and minerals and for governments to disclose what they receive.
“EITI is a matter of standards, not principle because we had the principle before,” Francesca Tatchouop Belobe, deputy minister of trade and economy, told Reuters.
Image problem
Tatchouop, part of a younger generation returning after training abroad, complains that the country, little known to many except for a failed 2004 coup attempt led by a British aristocratic mercenary [Simon Mann], suffers from stereotypes.
“I don’t know why it is so difficult to believe we are a modern society. I always believe you have the ideology and the implementation. I think (capacity) is the most challenging issue that we have,” she said.
With one of Africa’s highest per capita incomes — around US$30 000, according to the CIA last year — there is no shortage of money. But critics say there has not been enough focus on sectors like health and education, as opposed to building.
Oil and gas companies are meant to employ 70 percent local staff but complain they struggle to find people with skills.
Gunmen attacked the presidential palace last month, and political uncertainty is underscored by the heavy weapons now overlooking the port — just below a luxury hotel where the foreign energy executives enjoyed cocktails this week.
The security forces remain deeply suspicious about foreigners visiting for anything but oil.
A visiting Reuters correspondent was stopped at a checkpoint on the main road near the airport and questioned for about half an hour on his reasons for being in the country.
Presidential elections are due later this year but there is little doubt Obiang will win.
Last year, Manfred Nowak, special rapporteur for the UN’s Human Rights Council, accused the police of systematic torture.
“There is a general feeling of paranoia … It is one of the most dictatorial countries in sub-Saharan Africa … It could blow up at any time,” said one diplomat following the country.
“The elite is living very comfortably… Are they distributing the wealth to the poor? I am not convinced,” he added, saying efforts to join the EITI were more about changing the country’s reputation than anything else.