CIVICUS speaks with Alfredo Okenve, president of the Centre for Studies and Initiatives for the Development of Equatorial Guinea (CEIDGE), about the political context in which civil society operates in Equatorial Guinea.
CEIDGE is an independent civil society organisation that has advocated for the protection of human rights in Equatorial Guinea since 1997.
Is there any space for civil society in Equatorial Guinea?
There is no space for civil society. However, in addition to working to provide care for vulnerable people and promote community development, civil society activism strives to open civic space, promote human rights and create citizen networks for protection and education.
We don’t do it because we want to be martyrs or to please anyone. We do it because this is our country, we want it to be a better place and this is the only way to bring about change. We do it under very difficult conditions, at great personal, family and professional cost. Activists in Equatorial Guinea are real heroes and they need all kinds of support – technical, technological, financial and political.
How has Teodoro Obiang Nguema managed to become the world’s longest-serving dictator?
Obiang has been president of Equatorial Guinea for 44 years. He is now an old man, weak and with diminished capacities. He is someone who has been very lucky. He is of very humble origins, the son of a Gabonese immigrant, and lost his mother at an early age. Thanks to the aid he received, especially from the Catholic Church, he was able to study and became a military officer. But despite all the power he later accumulated, he never overcame the complexes caused by his origins and his mediocre education. This has greatly affected the exercise of his roles.
Macías Nguema, the first president of Equatorial Guinea after independence in 1968, was from the same family and administrative clan. As a result, Obiang became a key player in the army and the repressive apparatus. In 1979 he overthrew the president in a coup and has remained in power ever since.
Obiang received his military training in Franco’s Spain. From the conception of power he absorbed there he became an Afro-fascist autocrat. He has been a mediocre professional and an incompetent ruler: he has been unable to make things work in a small country with enormous natural resources and a very undemanding population.
To stay in power, he has been helped, first of all, by the historical past. Equatorial Guinea has known no freedoms. Its people have never been treated as citizens and have never considered themselves as such. They are ignorant of the basics of how a state functions and have no civic culture.
He has also instrumentalised violence to dominate through fear and mistrust. He has used repression, with no limits and with total impunity, subjecting critics to torture, trumped-up charges, arbitrary trials and long prison sentences. The fear he instils in people has a real basis. There is no legal security and no conditions for a free press to function.
The regime’s omnipotent control is facilitated by the small size of the country and the quantity of economic resources at its disposal. In recent decades, Obiang and his entourage have appropriated hydrocarbon revenues while condemning the majority of the population to social and economic exclusion. The system is set up in such a way that people’s ability to ensure their economic, social and political survival depends largely on Obiang’s blessing.
What role does ethnicity play in Obiang’s rule?
Equatorial Guinea is a multi-ethnic country with a very uneven ethnic distribution of the population. The majority ethic group, the Fang, accounts for more than 80 per cent of the population, while the Bubis constitute about 12 to 13 per cent and the other four ethnic groups – Annoboneses, Bissiós Fernandinos and Ndowés – make up only five to six per cent.
The Obiang family belongs to the Fang ethnic group, and although the ethnic component is important, power is not exercised on an ethnic basis but rather on a clan and territorial basis. A family clan and a district clan from the district of origin of the former and current president have concentrated power for more than five decades. More than three decades ago, a third power base was established: the Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) led by Obiang. While the country does not have a one-party system enshrined in its constitution, the PDGE functions as a quasi-single party.
The exercise of power on the basis of control requires Obiang to have instruments of repression and co-optation in all corners of the country and in all ethnic groups. Through the distribution of privileges, Obiang has secured trusted people and enforcement arms in Equatorial Guinea’s six ethnic groups. In each territorial district, he has created a commission to monitor political allegiance.
What do you think will be the effects of the entry of Teodoro Obiang’s son into politics?
In 2012 the Constitution of Equatorial Guinea was reformed to introduce a new role of vice-president. Obiang appointed his son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang, to this post, revealing his intention to perpetuate the clannish, dictatorial and kleptocratic regime.
For years the vice-president has shared power with his parents. He is a person who has limitations of all kinds: intellectual, professional, human, emotional and ethical. He is not a person with whom dialogue is possible, nor is he a person who understands power as emanating from popular sovereignty. If anything, since his rise to power the number of political prisoners, disappearances and deaths and the level of citizen insecurity have grown. Public administration is out of control, economic activity is virtually non-existent, and there are serious problems of unemployment and food insecurity.
What should the international community do to promote a transition to democracy in Equatorial Guinea?
Despite having many natural resources, Equatorial Guinea is very dependent on the international community, so if the international community really wanted to impose conditions on the regime, it could do so. Politically, the USA, the European Union and some African countries could push the country towards a peaceful transition to democracy. To this end, they should demand that President Obiang engage in inclusive and broad dialogue to reach agreements with pro-democracy social and political forces and appoint a transitional government over which he does not preside.
International cooperation should also support, with technical assistance, financial resources and expressions of solidarity, the pro-democracy activists and groups who are taking risks every day to promote democracy and human development in Equatorial Guinea.
Civic space in Equatorial Guinea is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.