Sunday, November 4, 2007

Commentary: The U.S.-Equatorial Guinea Alliance

Life is good if you're Teodoro Obiang.

Condi Rice considers you a "good friend."

ExxonMobil threw a party in your honor in Washington.

The Dutch mega-airline KLM at one point even named an airplane after you.

And you're "in permanent contact with the Almighty," according to the radio station you control, which also noted that you are "like God in heaven" with "all power over men and things." Accordingly, as the broadcast went on to note, "He can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell." (Sound familiar?)

Yet all is not well in Equatorial Guinea, the small, oil-soaked African nation that Obiang rules with an iron fist.

Human rights groups report that members of opposition groups are "flogged." One man recounted how the president's forces "cut his ears off with scissors." In addition to recurring accusations that the Obiang regime has targeted citizens in exile for assassination, the State Department notes the following characteristics of Equatorial Guinea's sparkling human rights record:
...abridgement of citizens' right to change their government; torture, beating, and other physical abuse of prisoners and detainees by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; impunity; arbitrary arrest, detention, and incommunicado detention; harassment and deportation of foreign residents; judicial corruption and lack of due process; restrictions on the right to privacy; severe restrictions on freedom of speech and of the press; restrictions on the right of assembly, association, and movement; government corruption; violence and discrimination against women; trafficking in persons; discrimination against ethnic minorities; restrictions on labor rights and child labor; and forced child labor.
Taking advantage of the favorable climate for efficient exploitation, U.S. energy interests have established a firm foothold in the country. ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, Halliburton, and Marathon Oil are all feeding from the trough, as two-thirds of Equatorial Guinea's substantial oil production goes into U.S. hands. Accordingly, the U.S. embassy (shut down in 1995, after the atypically outspoken then-U.S. envoy received death threats for daring to criticize Obiang and before the oil boom was in full swing) was reopened by the Bush administration to manage this burgeoning partnership.

Thanks to Western benevolence, the macroeconomy is booming, one of the world's fastest-growing, though mysteriously, as Peter Maass writes: "Per capita, it is one of the richest countries on the continent; rated by how much money ends up in the pockets of people not related to the president, it remains one of the poorest."

Not unfairly, China has taken quite a beating in Western media for its unsavory alliances in Africa, which are uniformly understood to be about securing access to natural resources and markets with little to no regard for human rights.

Yet the same elementary point about the United States somehow escapes the penetrating eyes of the Western intelligentsia, who display a marked tendency to simply ignore human rights violations in U.S.-allied states with expansive energy reserves (tellingly, the press posed two questions to Rice when she appeared with Obiang in Washington before their meeting - both of which were about Iran) - a fact perceived rather easily by others.

Says Gabriel Nguema Lima, one of Obiang's sons, who is "in effective control of the ministry of mines and energy," overseeing the country's oil industry: “The United States, like China, is careful not to get into internal issues.”

Nothing different should be expected from a world power without an enlivened citizenry that demands otherwise.