In July 2009, Human Rights Watch released a report entitled Well Oiled: Oil and Human Rights in Equatorial Guinea. In this commentary, HRW Director of Business and Human Rights Arvind Ganesan links this tiny Sub-Sahara African countries’ oil wealth to government corruption and human rights abuses.
Arvind Ganesan: When you’re at the pump today, you might be getting gas from a country that once banned the word intellectual. That’s Equatorial Guinea. It’s a tiny country on the west coast of Africa. About half a million people live there… But, it’s the fourth largest oil-producer in sub-Saharan Africa. ExxonMobil, Hess and Marathon are all there. Right now, it’s the fifteenth largest supplier of foreign oil to the United States.
President Obama wants to wean the US from oil, but in the short term it’s going to have to come from somewhere.
Equatorial Guinea is one place that may surprise you. It was a Spanish colony until 1968. After independence, Francisco Macias Nguema took over. He was a brutal dictator who insisted on being called the “Unique Miracle.”
By the end of his reign, about a third of his country’s population was dead or in exile. His nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, overthrew him in 1979, and has been president ever since.
Under his rule, Equatorial Guinea basically has no free press, no independent judiciary, or independent civil society. And torture, arbitrary detentions, and corruption are rife. In 2003, one of his presidential aides declared on state-run radio that Obiang is like God and that “He can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell because it is God himself, with whom he is in permanent contact, and who gives him this strength.”
Equatorial Guinea first began to export oil in 1995. And today, the US imports up to a hundred thousand barrels of oil a day from the country.
The economy is nearly 130 times larger than it was when oil was discovered. But the US State Department, the International Monetary Fund, and others have repeatedly noted that the government of Equatorial Guinea doesn’t spend enough money on its own people. The people of the country have a per capita income comparable to Spain or Italy and development indicators more like Afghanistan.
The president and his family, however, lead lavish lifestyles while most people live in crushing poverty. The president kept the country’s oil money at Riggs Bank in Washington, DC. Equatorial Guinea was the bank’s largest client. In 2004, Human Rights Watch helped expose the government’s lavish spending habits. After a Senate investigation, Riggs received a total of $41 million in fines for failing to comply with anti-money laundering laws. Their dealings with the government of Equatorial Guinea ultimately ruined the bank’s reputation and led to a takeover. But no official of Equatorial Guinea’s government was punished.
Meanwhile, the president and his family still can use the country’s wealth as their personal ATM. Take the president’s son, Teodorin. He has a collection of mansions and luxury cars throughout the world. Back home, he’s the Minister of Forests and his official income is about four thousand dollars a month. Somehow he was able spend almost $44 million on mansions and luxury cars in the US and South Africa between 2004 and 2006. By comparison, the total education budget of the country was about $43 million in 2005.
Whenever we go to the pump or use petroleum products, we are putting more money into the pockets of people like President Obiang.
It doesn’t look like the US is going to break its dependence on foreign oil soon. But there are things we can do now to break the cycle of corruption and human rights abuses in many oil-rich countries.
First, the Obama Administration can do what its predecessor didn’t. It should hold these governments accountable for human rights and corruption. That hasn’t happened much. In April 2006, Obiang’s son bought a $35 million Malibu mansion. The same month, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Obiang in Washington and called him “a good friend” at a press conference.
Second, the administration needs to use existing laws to aggressively investigate and prosecute corrupt companies and officials.
And finally, the administration must also go after foreign leaders who keep their stolen money in the US. Then the money can be sent back to the real owners of that wealth – the people of countries like Equatorial Guinea.
Without those steps, the human cost of importing up to 100,000 barrels of oil per day from a place like Equatorial Guinea is staggering.
For the Sea Change ViewPoint, I’m Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch.