Democracy, Obiang Style
Soldiers are a common if not pervasive sight on the streets of Malabo, and security is tight, particularly as several coup plots, organized abroad by exile groups, have been busted up the past few years by authorities in Angola and Nigeria. The biggest threat to Obiang, though, comes from within his own clan, as infighting has erupted over who is to get the biggest share of the petroleum spoils. Lacking confidence in the loyalty of his own troops, Obiang depends for his primary protection on roughly 100 Moroccans, provided by the former king, Hassan, who serve as the regime's praetorian guard. When Obiang is at his office or the nearby presidential palace, the surrounding area is sealed off. One day, unaware that Musselman and John Hess were meeting with Obiang, I asked a cabdriver to take me to the church off the main square. When we got close, the driver spotted a group of armed men standing by a squadron of five SUVs, and he quickly turned tail.
Democracy appears to be spreading about as slowly as the oil wealth. Guineans can choose among two TV and two radio stations--in both cases the government operates one and Teodoro Obiang the other. There are no daily newspapers, and the few publications that do circulate offer fawning praise of the regime. La Gaceta de Guinea Ecuatorial
, a glossy monthly, is filled with interviews with government officials and local businessmen. The ministry of information sells Ebano
, a thin newsletter; the issue I bought, for about $1, hailed Teodoro as "the minister most loved by the people for his pragmatic, humanitarian and very dynamic character." Criticism of the government is rare but tolerated--one article in Ebano
denounced official corruption and said some officials "consider themselves to have won the lottery"--but direct criticism of Obiang is forbidden.
Obiang did legalize political parties in the early 1990s, though by then many prominent opposition figures had fled abroad and remained fearful of returning. The government has also banned a number of parties, and others have waited years to be recognized. Of twelve authorized opposition parties that do function, eleven have aligned themselves with the Obiang regime, after receiving cash payoffs and other blandishments.
Rafael, a tall man with flecks of white in his beard, belongs to the Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS), the one opposition group that has refused to work with the government. Until a few years ago, he said, it was a crime to greet a member of the opposition. Obiang has lifted that law, as well as one that banned opposition members from owning a business or working (public-sector jobs and some private-sector positions still require ruling-party membership). "The government has taken some important steps," he says. "At least they are willing to talk to the opposition."
Rafael escorted me to an interview with the CPDS's leader, Placido Mico, who was jailed and tortured in 1993 and has been detained periodically since then. We met at party headquarters, a few rooms on the second floor of a run-down residential building. There's a desk at the front of the main room, upon which sits an old manual typewriter, and about fifteen school chairs. This, pretty much, constitutes the party's assets. Mico, 38, a short man neatly dressed in slacks and a short-sleeved dress shirt, and wearing glasses with one lens cracked, looks like a high school teacher, which is what he was before he ran afoul of the authorities. He is dubious of the government's political "opening," particularly as the oil bonanza has left Obiang less dependent on the kindness of foreign donors. "When you need aid you are more sensitive to international criticism," he says. "The government now has its own money and doesn't have to listen to anyone."
Mico's party has virtually no access to the media. It does put out its own publication, La Verdad
(The Truth), a few times a year. The latest issue has been set to go to press for a week, but the party hasn't been able to print it because the city has been virtually without electricity. CPDS members can generally circulate freely in Malabo and Bata, but not in the rest of the country. And even in Bata, two party members have been in jail for the past four months, charged with "defaming the head of state." "If we send people to villages, the authorities will ask them for authorization papers," Mico says. "There's a climate here of intimidation and fear."
In many ways, that intimidation is directed more at the general population than at the political opposition. I heard an eyewitness account of a recent incident that took place in the small town of Luba. There a soldier shot a man drinking in a bar after he complained about the city's shortage of electricity. The man lay bleeding in the street for an hour before security forces allowed him to be moved to a hospital, where he died a short time later.