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4th Mar 2024

Analysis

Equatorial Guinea: a 'tough nut' for the EU

  • President of Equatorial Guinea Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, meeting Vladimir Putin in Sochi in 2019. (Photo: Wikimedia)
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Equatorial Guinea, EU officials concede, is a "tough nut". The relationship shows little sign of improvement, even after the European Parliament recently broke its 20-year silence on human rights in the country. The resolution, passed last February, condemned the death of a Spanish-Equatoguinean citizen, Julio Obama Mefuman, who died in custody on January 15th. The MEPs, attributing his death to the dictatorial regime, urged the EU to demonstrate "utmost firmness" and impose sanctions on regime members.

With 1.6 million inhabitants, Equatorial Guinea, one of Africa's smallest countries, is helmed by the world's longest-serving dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Opposition and civil society are either silenced or persecuted, with power consolidated within the same family since Obiang seized it from his uncle in 1979.

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Now aged 80, Obiang was re-elected for a sixth term in 2022 in a political environment EU spokesperson Nabila Massrali diplomatically described as "not conducive to democratic, pluralist, and participatory elections." This comment implies the elections were farcical at best. Managing diplomatic relations with the regime is a complex task for the Europeans, often reduced to intermittent WhatsApp exchanges when they do occur.

The president's son, Vice-President Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, known as Teodorin, is effectively the country's sole administrator and most likely successor to his father. Administration in the country is largely opaque, and the nation ranks 171 out of 178 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, barely outranking North Korea, Libya, and Venezuela.

A few weeks after the parliament resolution passed, EU Ambassador Philippe Van Damme travelled to Malabo, the capital, on 22 April, to meet with both father and son. The move was characterised as "pragmatic" by Van Damme. Fostering political dialogue with Equatorial Guinea has proven challenging for Europeans. The EU does not maintain a delegation in the country; instead, the EU delegation in Cameroon oversees its affairs, with Philippe Van Damme accredited to both nations.

Fraught relationships

Most of the EU's relations with Equatorial Guinea go through member states. However, the last remaining European embassies in the country, France and Spain, have encountered roadblocks in their dialogues. Notably, Teodorin Obiang, who flaunts his opulent lifestyle on Instagram, has been sentenced in France for embezzling public funds. Equatorial Guinea recently filed another case before The Hague after losing the initial legal battle over the diplomatic status of a luxurious building seized by French justice.

In Spain, the situation is similarly fraught. In February, a Spanish judge summoned another son of the dictator, Carmelo Ovono Obiang, and two top security officials for their role in the kidnap and torture of Julio Obama and another Spanish dissident.

Following the Parliament's resolution in February, Vice-President Teodorin Obiang accused the Europeans of "colonial speech and paternalism." This anti-colonialist rhetoric is common in Equatorial Guinea. On two occasions, in March 2022 and the subsequent February, the country refrained from voting on a resolution condemning Russia for the war in Ukraine.

In the race of Russia and western countries to gain the support of African nations in the war in Ukraine, Malabo might not agree with the European agenda. When asked about this, French MEP Nathalie Loiseau, head of the foreign policy committee at the European assembly said that "violations of human rights are both contrary to our values but also to our interests".

Chinese interests

Despite these issues, Equatorial Guinea retains geostrategic significance. Located near the intersection of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic, within the Gulf of Guinea, and sitting on significant hydrocarbon deposits, it draws global interest. Reports from US intelligence, which The Wall Street Journal revealed in 2021, raised concerns over increasing Chinese influence, sparking fears that China might soon establish a military base in the port of Bata, the country's economic capital. It would be the first Chinese military base on the Atlantic coast.

Paul Nantulya, from the Pentagon-funded Africa Center for Strategic Studies, tells EUobserver that if it happens, it could go fast: "If we look at the Chinese base in Djibouti, China denied any military plan until the last minute". He adds: "There's been a lot of speculation because Chinese ports that are built across Africa have to meet certain specifications: be able to be used for civilian but also security purposes. And the port of Bata was built by the Chinese with those characteristics". Nantulya also says China has helped train and armed the Equatoguinean police and the presidential guard.

The competition between China and the US is intense in Equatorial Guinea. US deputy national security advisor Jon Finer met with president Obiang at the end of 2021, in Malabo, presumably to convince the regime to reject the Chinese plans, whereas a week later Xi Jinping called Teodoro Obiang saying it will always support the country's national sovereignty.

For their part, the Europeans, as they look at the country's declining reserves of oil and gas, express concerns about its stability in the coming decade. Despite their efforts to encourage economic diversification, the regime continues to rely heavily on its hydrocarbon stocks, previously thought to be unlimited.

"Troubled times"

In the mid 90s, the discovery of gigantic oil deposits made Equatorial Guinea one of the richest countries of Africa, though most of its population lived — and still lives — under the poverty threshold. The oil boom changed its relations with France and Spain, upon which the country had been dependent on until then.

"In the early 90s, Equatorial Guinea was part of the French centrafrican zone. But when they discovered oil, instead of giving concessions to the French companies, Obiang gave them to the Americans," Enrique Martino, from the Complutense University of Madrid tells EUobserver. "Later, GDP contracted by almost 60% in the five years after 2013 as a result of falling oil prices and depleting oil fields. American companies reduced their investments and that's when the relationship with China increased. Today they need new investments. Gas could be the new martingale".

The potential for gas extraction could present new opportunities. Guinean offshore gas is one of the biggest reserves but remains unexplored as it's too deep, says the academic.

Nonetheless, predictions from the International Monetary Fund remain pessimistic, foreseeing a continual decrease in the country's "proven" gas reserves over the next ten years. "It's worrying. The Arab states prepare their future, which is not the case for Equatorial Guinea," a European diplomat tells EUobserver, "we can expect that when the reserves of oil and gas runs low, the country will go through some troubled times".

With few European companies left in the country, and Equatorial Guinea refusing to ratify the revised Cotonou agreement in 2008 — which would facilitate trade agreements and direct development funds to Africa — the Europeans' role in Equatorial Guinea is currently limited to promoting their values.

Author bio

Peggy Corlin covers EU politics having an impact in France and how Paris influences EU politics for several French outlets.

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