Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Africa: Africa’s New Face to the World

President of Equatorial Guinea | Credit:

By Eskinder Nega
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

ADDIS ABABA (IDN) - Perhaps it would be a blatant exaggeration to say that Jean Ping, Commissioner of the African Union, had imperiously held his chin up when he spoke. But that he spoke earnestly, deliberately, and with the best stately poise he could muster is hardly in doubt.

After all, Africans had just realized their first people's power revolution in Tunisia, and were on the verge of another one in Egypt as he addressed a multitude of journalists in the shadow of the strikingly huge complex that the Chinese government is constructing to house the headquarters of the AU.

The mass of humanity that constitute Africans from Alexandria in the north to Cape Town in the south could not be ignored anymore. No more to be taken for granted, he had to speak to them.

"(This summit of African leaders is being held when) corruption and abuse of power by the state are threatening peace and stability in the continent," he said, alluding to the soaring tide of people power sweeping North Africa. The Presidents will unavoidably focus on these issues as well, he promised.

Two days later, the summit was over, and with the spectre of people power spreading to scores of African countries looming in the air, sombre faced Presidents rushed to their capitals after what many said were two restless nights in Addis Ababa; the Ethiopian capital where the AU is based.

Stuck in town to fend off packs of journalists dying for quotes regarding the latest face of Africa, as Chairman of the African Union, Equatorial Guinea's kleptocratic President-for-life, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, was hapless Ping.

There was not a soul who did not feel sorry for the apparently dazed Ping that day. It was as if though nothing else about the summit mattered.

To understand why, meet Africa’s new face to the world. The sixty eight years old President of Equatorial Guinea was named Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo upon birth by his parents, and as such is he known in all official capacities. But seek his camaraderie or goodwill, and he must invariably be addressed as El Jefe (The Boss). Not unlike the proud warriors of the great Fang people, to whom Obiang belongs, he evidently has no stomach for equals.

If a plausible case against "premature decolonization" could ever be made, the post-colonial experience of Equatorial Guinea could serve as a compelling illustration. Granted independence from Spain in 1968, Equatorial Guinea is one of the smallest countries in Africa. Two years later, in 1970, a single party psychotic dictatorship under Francisco Macías Nguema, who had led the nation to self-rule, was established.

By 1979, when he was finally overthrown in a coup led by his nephew, Obiang, up to half of the nation’s 300,000 people had either been murdered or fled to exile. The nation had literally collapsed both physically and emotionally. Macías was accused of genocide; quickly tried; and much to the delight of the public, shot by a firing squad. The people could not help but see a saviour in Obiang.

And then, as the saying goes, oil happened to Equatorial Guinea.

It happened in 1996. Once Africa's basket case, Equatorial Guinea was suddenly awash with more money than the government could possibly spend. Less than ten years later, the tiny nation, whose total population barely hovers above half a million souls, was pumping more 500,000 barrels of oil per day. Black Africa's Kuwait was born.

The dramatic transformation of Obiang from a man of the people to an unabashed kleptocrat has its parallel with the expanding wealth of government coffers. Depending on the source, including the influential Forbes, his personal wealth, most of it safely stashed in appropriately discreet Western banks, is now estimated anywhere between 700 million to three billion U.S. dollars. His son owns the highest value assessed house in Malibu, California. Britney Spears owns the adjacent property.

However, so controversial has the wealth of Obiang become, that his dealings with a prestigious American bank, Washington D.C.'s Riggs, where he had deposited more than half a billion dollars in his personal account, has contributed to the banks collapse. Obiang is now unofficially the world's face of kleptocracy. With Mobutu Sese-Seko long gone, he now reigns supreme as the Grand-kleptocrat of the world.

And there are his stranger-than-fiction idiosyncrasies. Few years after the discovery of oil, an aghast public was informed that "the boss is in permanent contact with the Almighty." As such, "he can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell," the nation was warned. And, as human rights groups have attested recurrently, so he has. But his favourite weapon of terror is his alleged cannibalism of opponents, which he purportedly encourages.

Obviously, many of his terrified subjects are horrified at the possibility of ending up in their leader’s stomach. There is no opposition worthy of its name in Equatorial Guinea.

Such is the old man Africa has chosen as its new face to the world as Egypt’s young protesters are heroically battling the might of one of the largest repressive states in the world. The contrast between Africa's aging out-of-touch leaders and their increasingly sophisticated youthful subjects could hardly be sharper.