It was thirty years ago today that Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo overthrew his uncle, Francisco Macías Nguema, and took control of the government of Equatorial Guinea. Macías, Equatorial Guinea's first ruler after independence, was a brutal dictator responsible for the death or exile of roughly one-third of the country's population and the complete ruin of its economy. (Those who paid any attention at all to Equatorial Guinea at the time referred to Macías as "Africa's Caligula.") His fall from power seemed to offer a better future, particularly given his successor's promises to institute democracy, but for most Equatoguineans little has changed.
In spite of the adoption of a new constitution drafted in 1982 with the assistance of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and presidential elections held in 1989, 1996, and 2002, Obiang has never relinquished power. The elections of 1996 and 2002, which were widely criticized by opposition parties and international observers, produced 97 and 98 percent majorities for Obiang. (Another election is scheduled for December of this year. Obiang has announced his intention to seek yet another seven-year term.)
The discovery of oil in Equatoguinean territorial waters in the 1990s, together with major investments by foreign oil and gas companies, have produced dramatic economic growth (an increase in real GDP averaging 14.9 percent annually from 2003 to 2008), but little of the wealth has benefited the general population. Instead, Equatorial Guinea has become one of the world's worst kleptocracies. Transparency International's most recent Corruption Perceptions Index (for 2008) ranks Equatorial Guinea among the most corrupt countries in the world (171st of 180 states ranked). Furthermore, the most recent (2009) survey of freedom in the world by Freedom House puts Equatorial Guinea among the "worst of the worst," the eight countries deemed to have the world's worst human rights conditions. Furthermore, a special report released by Human Rights Watch last month concludes that the government of Equatorial Guinea "is setting new low standards of political and economic malfeasance."
In spite of President Obiang's poor health (he reportedly has prostate cancer), prospects for change in Equatorial Guinea appear poor. Obiang's profligate oldest son is poised to assume power (as the late Omar Bongo's son, Ali-Ben Bongo, seems certain to do in the Gabonese presidential election scheduled for August 30). The country's importance as an oil and gas producer--with a production rate of roughly 400,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day--deters most governments from exerting pressure on Obiang. And if the United States and the European Union were to decide to try to punish the Equatoguinean government for its crimes, the People's Republic of China would be eager to step in with no scruples.
For what might be the worst country in the world, there is no obvious path to democracy and development.