Investment in Equatorial Guinea will not end human rights abuses


March 2015 was a particularly notorious month for human rights abuses in Equatorial Guinea.

On 17 March, government security forces arrested Guillermo Nguema Ela.

Guillermo is a political opposition leader – member of the Fuerza Demócrata Republicana (Democratic Republican Force) – in a country where one man controls the political process, which is biased towards the ruling political party and was founded to placate Western critics.

The government has not offered any reasons for Guillermo’s arrest, leaving many to conclude that he was arrested for purely political reasons.

After his arrest he was forcibly transferred to his village near the city of Mongomo, in the eastern part of Equatorial Guinea, where he has been ordered to remain indefinitely.

Two days later, political activist Luis Nzo was arrested for protesting Nguema’s unlawful arrest.

Luis was arrested while he peacefully distributed pamphlets and used a megaphone to express his opinion. Police officers reportedly beat Luis after he refused to stop his peaceful protest.

He was then forced into a police car and arrested. Luis was transferred to his village, also near Mongomo, and has been ordered not to leave.

Neither Guillermo nor Luis has been formally charged with a crime. Yet, they remain confined to their respective villages.

One week later, 56 university students were arrested for peacefully protesting the unfair distribution of insufficient scholarships.

Police first used teargas on the students, then resorted to violence in an attempt to end the protest. The arrested students were imprisoned for 12 days without being charged with a crime. Five individuals who were not university students – four between the ages of 18 and 23, and one only 13 years old – were also arrested in their homes.

The 13-year-old child was arrested for recording the arrests of some of these four on his cell phone. Even after the 56 university students had been released, the five youths not affiliated with the university, including the child, continued to be detained without charge for a two-week period.


Complete disregard for human rights and the rule of law

Despite how shocking this rash of unlawful arrests may seem, arbitrary detention for exercising the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly is common in Equatorial Guinea, a tiny oil-rich country in sub-Saharan Africa.

The country has an estimated 1.1 billion barrels of crude oil reserves as of January 2015, as well as other natural resources, such as timber.

Not only do these arrests violate basic human rights norms, but they also violate Equatoguinean law.

Under Equatorial Guinea’s law, detainees must be brought before a judge within 72 hours of their arrest. The judge will then either “legalise” the detention or order the prisoner’s release.

There is little evidence to suggest this requirement is ever followed, particularly in cases of politically motivated arrests.

Some cases of arbitrary detention are especially egregious. Take, for instance, the case of Agustin Esono Nsogo, a teacher arrested in October 2012 simply because he is related to the founder of one of the two opposition political parties in Equatorial Guinea.

Agustin was imprisoned until February 2014 without ever being tried or charged with a crime.

Restrictions on the freedom of movement, like the ones imposed on Guillermo and Luis, are frequently imposed upon Equatoguineans, presumably to keep them out of political activity. This also provides an excuse for future re-arrest.

In May 2013, police arrested Clara Nsegue Eyi, also known as “Lola,” because she was petitioning for her political party to be recognised ahead of the country’s parliamentary elections.

Lola was transferred to Mongomo, held at a detention facility for two weeks without being charged, then released and ordered to remain in Mongomo, despite residing in Malabo.

After a couple weeks Lola decided to return home, where she was arrested for violating the order to remain in Mongomo. She was imprisoned from mid-July to mid-October 2013 without ever being charged with a crime.

Those who attempt to speak out against the human rights abuses in Equatorial Guinea are also harassed or detained. Lawyer Ponciano Mbomio criticised the government by suggesting it was only prosecuting his client for political reasons.

He was suspended from practising law for two years. Furthermore, the Equatoguinean judiciary is not independent – there are reports judges regularly consult with the president’s office before rendering a decision – so no justice is available to the victims of these human rights violations.


Investment will not bring change

President Obiang, the country’s ruler since 1979, has looted his country’s natural resource revenues to enrich himself and his family members in spite of laws providing that the country’s natural resources belong to the public, not individuals.

Although Equatorial Guinea has a per capita GDP of $32,026, the average Equatoguinean lives in abject poverty, without access to clean water or sanitation. Most of the capital city’s residents live in slums.

Obiang has also squandered most of the country’s oil revenues on prestige projects designed to raise his global profile.

One example is Sipopo, a luxury resort outside the capital city that cost over $830 million, built to host the 2011 African Union Summit. The vast majority of Equatoguineans are too poor to spend even one night in the resort city’s five-star hotel.

This systematic corruption, mismanagement of the national wealth, and the complete lack of respect for human rights and the rule of law is why China’s recent pledge to invest $2 billion in Equatorial Guinea’s infrastructure is unlikely to make meaningful improvements in sustainable economic development or the wellbeing of the majority of people in Equatorial Guinea.

Without any way to hold the government of Equatorial Guinea accountable, the human rights abuses will continue.

China openly admits it will not interfere with a country’s domestic policies in exchange for infrastructure investment.

By investing in a country that blatantly violates its citizens’ human rights and squanders its natural resource wealth, Obiang has carte blanche to continue profiting from his country’s resources and oppressing those who speak out against him.