Cervantes in _Don Quixote_ has the protagonist imagine a man called Alifanfarón, who is ‘a fevered pagan... Lord of the Great Island of Trapobana’.
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, President of Equatorial Guinea, describes himself as ‘Great General of the Alifanfarón [Army] Division, Lord of the Great Islands of Bioko, Annobon and Río Muni’ – though any association with the imaginings of Don Quixote is probably unintended.
His own fevered imaginings are quite sufficient. In July 2003, state-operated radio declared Obiang a ‘God’ who is ‘in permanent contact with the Almighty’ and can ‘kill anyone without going to hell’. He also likes to be called, more simply, _El Jefe_ (The Boss).
The strong Spanish connection with Equatorial Guinea began in the 18th century when Portugal exchanged it for Spanish territory in southern Brazil. An expedition to take control of its islands was launched from Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1778. Spain became the colonial power, and its language permeated society. Obiang himself received military training in the General Francisco Franco Military Academy in Spain.
Equatorial Guinea became independent in 1968. Obiang’s uncle, Macias Nguema, took over the presidency a year later on the pretext of averting a military coup – a pretext which rapidly became a political tradition. Playing on divisions between the majority Ela Nguema and the minority Bata peoples, the Macias Nguema regime was extremely brutal, killing or imprisoning many thousands or forcing them into exile in Spain. The population fell by as much as a half.
Obiang overthrew and executed his uncle in 1979, with the help of Moroccan mercenaries. There were brief expectations that, since the situation could scarcely get worse, it might get better. It continued in much the same way. Obiang’s Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea, largely controlled by his protégés or members of his own family, became the only legal party. He was ‘elected’ unopposed in 1984 and 1989. The pretext of averting a military coup was frequently used to crush political opponents. In 1996 Obiang got lucky. Mobil (now ExxonMobil) struck oil in the country. By 2004, 185,000 barrels a day were being exported. Natural gas was discovered as well, and the US energy giant Marathon is building a large processing plant in the country. Equatorial Guinea was inevitably styled ‘the new Kuwait’.
But it’s the same old story. _Forbes_ magazine credits Obiang with making himself one of the world’s wealthiest dictators in record time, with an estimated $600 million already stashed away in foreign bank accounts. His son and designated heir, Teodorín, lives in the dissolute and ostentatious manner generally expected of people in his position.
Even the pretext of averting military coups has gone upmarket. In March 2004, Obiang announced that there was a complex plot to overthrow him involving the intelligence services of the US, Britain and Spain. Soon after 15 people were arrested in Equatorial Guinea, an airplane was detained in Harare, Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean Government claimed that the aircraft was carrying armed white mercenaries heading for Equatorial Guinea to topple Obiang – and, presumably, to get their hands on the oil action. Mark Thatcher, son of the former British Prime Minister, was arrested and convicted in South Africa on charges related to these events.
Inevitably, speculative official figures for ‘economic growth’ in Equatorial Guinea have passed the vast majority of its people by. They remain in a state of material poverty and political repression. Almost all opponents of Obiang live in exile. With the oil stakes so high, the ‘international community’ has gone remarkably quiet about the widespread violation of human rights in the country.
Obiang has encouraged a cult of personality, insisting that all public speeches end by wishing him well. Important buildings have a presidential lodge attached to them. Towns and cities have streets commemorating the coup that brought him to power. His face is printed on the clothes worn to frenzied rallies by his supporters.
A devout Catholic who has had a recent audience with the Pope, Obiang now suffers from prostate cancer and is said to live in agony, weighing less than 50 kilograms. His chances of being overthrown increase significantly during his frequent absences abroad for medical treatment.