The Times has a nice story on Obiang’s Equatorial Guinea that is worth reading:
Officially and unofficially, Americans do business with one of the undisputed human rights global bad boys, Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s fourth biggest oil exporter. Its widely criticized record on basic freedoms has offered little barrier to broad engagement by the United States, commercially or diplomatically.
American oil companies have billions of dollars invested here. One American diplomat, using language that makes human rights advocates fume, praised the “mellowing, benign leadership” of the dictator in power for more than 30 years, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, in 2009 cables released by WikiLeaks. And a leading American military contractor with strong Pentagon ties has a multimillion-dollar contract to protect his shores and help train his forces.
You may recall that Obiang’s son was recently reported to have ordered a $380M luxury yacht. The Obiang’s and their backers continue to run the central African country like a personal possession.
According to the Guardian:
President Obiang, who has ruled since seizing power in 1979, has decreed that the management of his country’s $3bn a year in oil revenues is a state secret. That is why it is difficult to say for sure exactly how he comes to have about $700m in US bank accounts. But the president’s son gave an insight into his salary in an affidavit filed with the Cape high court in South Africa in August, as part of a lawsuit against him over a commercial debt.
On paper Equatorial Guinea is richer than most middle income countries. In reality, however, most of the 676,000 Equatorial Guineans live in poverty. The story of Equatorial Guinea is almost personal. Every time I post on Obiang’s inept rule I can’t stop wondering: How hard can it be to run a country of only 676,000 with over 3 billion in annual revenue?
Like the Times article points out, outsiders like the US government and foreign oil companies deserve to be called out over the goings on in Equatorial Guinea.
That said, the lion’s share of the blame is on Obiang’ and his backers. As far as I know none of the foreigners involved in the country held a gun to his head and asked him to siphon off billions of his country’s revenue to foreign bank accounts.
More on the Times story here.
The West’s engagement with countries such as Equatorial Guinea and Kenya represents a balance between two – often opposing – imperatives. On the one hand, Western countries pursue their own national interests; on the other is a fairly genuine desire to improve conditions for the inhabitants of developing nations. Support for the former is highly focused and organised, coming from those specific companies and industries that stand to benefit. Support for the latter goal is more diffuse, arising from the altruistic feelings of the general public.
Actual government policy is an equilibrium between these two opposing forces. The equilibrium point is influenced by a host of variables that determine the strength of each side.
Things get a bit more tricky, however, when we introduce a third player who threatens both the economic interests and the humanitarian concerns of the Western nation. In such a situation, humanitarian concerns are eclipsed by the urgency of the economic threat. Indeed, the prospect of a complete loss of influence will force the humanitarian lobby to submit to national strategic interests in the hope of reform in the longer term.
Africa, and indeed the developing world generally, suffered enormously during the Cold War as a result of the sidelining of humanitarian concerns while the West fought the spread of Communist influence. Whether Communism did indeed represent a humanitarian threat is irrelevant – fortunately so, as it saves me from having to express an opinion on the matter. What is pertinent is that the Western humanitarian lobby largely perceived it as such, and therefore turned a blind eye to the brutal regimes supported by the West, fearing worse should the Communists gain ground.
The end of the Cold War, and the unchallenged dominance of the West, ushered in an era of gradual reform throughout the developing world. The West was able to indulge in the luxury of humanitarian evangelism, cajoling and bribing the unsavoury regimes it had hitherto supported unquestioningly. The West’s considerable failings in this endeavour to date are a result of the equilibrium constraints imposed by the economic lobby (as discussed above), together with a strong measure of incompetence. I would suggest that incompetence has played the larger part.
Just as the West is beginning to learn from its impressive accumulation of mistakes and failures, its golden age of unchallenged supremacy is coming to an end. The West finds itself not only broke, but also threatened by the resurgence of the great Chinese civilization. We again face a scenario that is similar in important respects to the Cold War.
The West finds itself fighting for resources and political influence throughout the developing world. Its competitor is far more organised and efficient than ever the Soviet Union was. And without the ideological confrontation that characterised the Cold War, the West struggles to galvanize popular opinion at home. The humanitarian lobby insists on pushing its agenda, and maintains ethical constraints on the activities of both Western governments and Western companies.
In abiding by rules against the bribing of foreign officials, by respecting trade sanctions on despotic regimes, by vetting the provenance of bank deposits, and by indicting foreign leaders on war-crimes and corruption charges, the West puts itself at a strategic disadvantage. If you are Mr. Obiang, there is a distinct incentive in doing business with China instead. By surrendering their relationship with Mr. Obiang to China, the West is doing little to help the people of Equatorial Guinea.
The West does need to remain flexible in how it enforces its ethical principles. Diplomats are there to assess just how far their governments can go in applying in the stick, and to assess the merits of various types of carrot. We can not let national pride kid us about our need for such interventions. We need the help of Britain and America as we try to bring our politicians under control. That said, in the case of Equatorial Guinea, and doubtless in many others too, the economic lobby in the West has had too free a hand.
This argument hinges on the assumption that Chinese influence would, indeed, have detrimental humanitarian consequences for Africa. Is this correct? One can point to North Korea and to Myanmar, to Chinese support for Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Bashir in Sudan… but so also can one point to America’s continuing support for Obiang in Equatorial Guinea…
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