CIVICUS speaks to Alfredo Okenve, board member in charge of the International Cooperation and Good Governance Programmes of the Centre for Development Studies and Initiatives (CEID). Since 2012 Okenve coordinates the network of national CSOs in Equatorial Guinea. Trained as a physicist, he is a human rights defender and social activist with more than 20 years’ experience in consulting and management of development and civil society projects in Equatorial Guinea. He has worked as a professor of Mathematics and Physics and held a managerial position at the National University of Equatorial Guinea.
1. The government of Equatorial Guinea is among the worst human rights abusers in the world. How would you describe the environment for civil society activity in the country?
Civil society is still fledgling in Equatorial Guinea. It dates back to the nineties, and it faces internal difficulties such as a lack of tradition and experience in development and human rights work. It does not have much institutional support either - neither external nor domestic. However, the greatest among its current challenges lies with Equatorial Guinea’s government system. The ruling regime does not uphold any fundamental right, including the right to freedom of association enshrined in our Constitution. The environment is unfavourable, even hostile, to civil society work in every respect (the law, actual practices, lack of respect for human rights, funding, etc.). And it is particularly so for independent groups such as our NGO. There is a long list of legally recognised organisations in the country, but this basically serves the government to show that it respects the right to free association. In practice, however, the Ministry of the Interior stigmatises those organisations that want to work for the country’s development without following its orders, by arbitrarily attributing them uncivil actions. It has even suspended by decree the activities of NGOs like CEID, our organisation, or AGECDEA, another organisation dedicated to the “dangerous” task of providing solidary support to the elderly.
The situation has not improved in spite of the many civil society initiatives directed at the government to foster dialogue, improve the environment for civil society and promote human rights and the fight against poverty. On the contrary, in recent years Equatorial Guinea has been increasingly militarised, as if we were living under a state of siege.
2. What are the obstacles limiting the freedom of association in Equatorial Guinea? How have they affected you and your organisation?
Domestic laws and administrative practices are very restrictive. On one hand, the process for the legalisation of an organisation is long and full of obstacles. For example, it requires the organisation’s promoters to submit to the Ministry of the Interior an affidavit certifying that it will submit to its control on a quarterly basis, plus a favourable report from the Ministry of the area in which the organisation wishes to work, and another report from the governor or provincial government delegate. It also requires them to formalise the constitution of the entity before a notary public, who in turn must obtain an authorisation from the Ministry of the Interior to validate this act. No legally constituted association is allowed to receive any donation, whether local or foreign, private or public, above a hundred US dollars without prior authorisation from the Interior Minister. Another example: no legally constituted organisation, that is, no organisation that has been allowed by the government to function, can deal directly with a beneficiary community without an additional authorisation or credential; this is not what the law says, but it is “customary”.
Additionally the government routinely threatens the members of those organisations that are considered to be “enemies of the fatherland”, that is, those that are not aligned politically with the government. Last December, the governor of the Litoral province, where our headquarters are located, gathered all regional and provincial authorities and urged them not to interact with our NGO since their Ministry is in charge of the third sector, and the Minister had decreed our suspension.
Personally, as a professor and staff of the National University, I have not received my salary and have been arbitrarily and illegally banned from doing my job since June 2010, despite a shortage of teachers –all because of my condition as a social leader, human rights defender and good governance activist. What they are trying to do is condemn me to social exclusion and thereby send a warning to forcefully discourage civil society.
From 2015 on, the country’s CSOs have submitted to the government joint proposals to reform the laws of associations, indicating the limitations that the current law imposes on our social work; we have also raised the need for a national forum or conference on the role of civil society in the country. We have not yet received any official response.
3. Equatorial Guinea has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in Africa, and online censorship is routine. How do you manage to get your work done when the freedom of expression and information is so restricted?
Internet access remains a problem for us, either because of the low technology level or the lack of telematics capabilities of the country, or because of blockages imposed on critical websites or social networks such as Facebook or Twitter –coupled with electricity supply problems in most of the country.
Internally, we have no choice other than try to bypass and endure these obstacles, but it is indeed difficult and it restricts our work capacity. At the organisational level, we have adopted the strategy of opening spaces for information and coordination among our country’s civil society organisations, notably the National Coordination of CSOs, a platform and meeting point for the solidarity action of civil society.
4. Are protests allowed in Equatorial Guinea? How are citizens treated when the try to protest?
Our Constitution recognises the right to strike and demonstrate. The written rules state that a notification to the government authorities would suffice to exercise this right. In practice, however, the only demonstrations that are allowed and that are actually taking place in our country are those of support and praise to the President of the Republic and his policies –that is to say, those that are summoned by the government or the PDGE (Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea), the ruling party. Anyone promoting a demonstration against the government policies or any other form of expression, even the mere distribution of information leaflets in the streets, generally ends up under interrogation, tortured, imprisoned and/or dismissed from their jobs. Any claim or remedy that is filed with the competent authority in this regard is either denied or ignored. I think the situation is similar to that of closed regimes such as North Korea’s.
5. What are CEID’s aims? How does the organisation do its work within this context?
CEID is a not-for-profit, non-denominational and independent organisation. It began to form in 1996, at a time when our country was, despite its plentiful resources, among the most underdeveloped countries in Africa. It originated out of the concerns of a group of young graduates from several European universities (mostly Spanish and Russian), coming from fields as diverse as International Cooperation, Journalism, Economics, Engineering and Medicine. All of us wanted to contribute from civil society to improve the living conditions and the prospects for development of their fellow citizens, and were convinced that fostering a responsible, conscious, participative and enabled citizenry was of the utmost importance. And we shared the idea that the only real form of development is human, inclusive, sustainable and integral development. We wanted to dedicate our time to volunteer but professional work to fight against poverty and marginalisation through research and cooperation. The NGO was set up in Malabo in April 1997, and only by the end of 1998 did we obtain the authorisation to operate in the country.
We started working to identify the development problems of our country, analysing possible solutions from civil society. As a result, we set out at the grassroots level with two important programmes: the Civil Society Strengthening Programme and the Local Community Development Programme. A large part of our interventions were designed around these programmes. But we found out that international funding was in retreat because Guinea had become, thanks to its fossil fuel production, a middle-income country –even though our government had no intention or will to use any of that income to fund development through non-governmental entities. The ruling regime, which is totalitarian and based on monolithic thinking, never liked the sight of actors out of its orbit venturing on the national stage. There were plenty of attempts to co-opt our leaders, with diverse degrees of success. For all of these reasons, two years after we were granted legal personality we went through a crisis that led us to total hibernation lasting for about six years. We resumed our activities in 2007-2008, and now our priorities include human rights and good governance, issues that were prohibited to us by law until 2006. We also found some timid international support.
In sum, our work has focused on the introduction of new information technologies in education, local community and rural development, good governance and, above all, the strengthening of civil society. Since its inception five years ago, CEID leads the National Coordinating Network of Civil Society Organisations. We have also done consultancy work with international development and cooperation organisations and programmes.
We have a Board of Directors that is renewed every three years, and we gather in members’ assemblies every 18 months. Our headquarters are located in Bata, the country’s second capital. We cover our operating expenses and minor projects with the fees paid by our members-partners and the odd consultancy job; for development projects of a certain magnitude, of which we have already executed (or are in the process of implementing) fourteen, we seek external funds. So far all of these funds have come from the few international cooperation agencies that are still active in the country, or from occasional consortia with extractive industries fulfilling their commitment to corporate social responsibility. We have never received a single dollar from the State of Guinea.
Most CEID members are public servants and our dedication to NGO work is voluntary. This leaves us in a situation of great vulnerability, as we appear as easy prey for harassment, threats and blackmail. Nevertheless, we try to find courage in the conviction that we are doing something that is very necessary and, generally speaking, unprecedented. So far we have managed not to deviate from our ideas.
Unfortunately, we don’t have any self-protection strategy in place. The constant restrictions we face, plus the challenge of overcoming them while working on the ground in order to fulfil our commitments have left us no time or capacity to establish much-needed contingency policies. We therefore just try to always work within the legal framework and to appeal to the legality of all our actions.
As we lack the capacity to directly execute many of our initiatives, we usually submit them as suggestions to the institutions that are in a position or whose job it is to implement them. That is why we are always encouraging meetings and advocacy with government institutions such as those in the good governance sector (human rights, transparency) and in social sectors such as education, health and children’s care. We take a similar stance towards other NGOs that we have been providing training to. In 2011 we founded the Coordinating Network along with sectorial sub-networks to join efforts and promote collective initiatives. CEID plays a very active part in the tripartite EITI (Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative) National Commission, created in 2007, in representation of civil society. It is a challenge for Guinean civil society to have its own space recognised and for NGOs to be treated as development actors in their own right.
6. What can domestic actors do to promote respect for human rights and a healthy civic space in Equatorial Guinea?
We believe that the steps that we are already taking are the right ones and we need to work to improve them, because they are based on participatory strategies. Despite the obstacles and restrictions faced by Guinean civil society, we struggle to conquer spaces. Lobbying, advocacy and perseverance are as necessary as increased cohesion and solidarity. An example of the steps we have taken is the creation, within the Coordinating Network, of sectorial groups and specifically one for Human Rights and Transparency. On the same line of action, through the national information media CEID has been able to keep over the past four years a one-hour weekly radio space from which to promote respect for human rights, social involvement and public spiritedness. Likewise, we have proposed to the Ministry of Education the introduction of the subject of civic and social education within the national school curriculum.
7. How can external actors, including regional organisations and international solidarity movements, support civil society in Equatorial Guinea?
Civil society organisations in Equatorial Guinea need not just financial but also human, technical and institutional support from regional and international organisations. We need management tools and training on issues related to the development of civic spaces in restrictive environments, and to the role of civil society in the struggle for the rule of law and against poverty. We need to be wrapped up in solidarity and not be left alone; we need international actors to integrate us into their sub-regional, regional and global networks and to advocate for us with their governments, which maintain relations with Equatorial Guinea, so they put pressure on ours to provide a favourable environment for civil society.