Quietly but surely, Equatorial Guinea, with the benefit of oil revenues, is transforming itself into a modern country. Between 2009 and 2011, it built a new gleaming and beautiful city, called Sipopo. The country has set itself the target of 2020 for transforming itself into an emerging nation. With eight years to go, the government has stepped up its infrastructural development to meet the 2020 deadline. Last year the government also introduced amendments to the constitution in a bid to deepen and enhance democracy in the country. Despite all the recent successes, Equatorial Guinea remains one of the most criticized countries. In August AfricawatchExecutive Editor Steve Mallory traveled to Equatorial Guinea to interview its president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Africawatch Editor Steve Mallory, right, interviews President Obiang, left, and Anatolio Ndong Mba, Equatorial Guinea’s ambassador to the United Nations, looks on.
Q: Your Excellency, thank you for taking time away from your busy schedule to speak with Africawatch. I know that our readers across Africa and throughout the world will be very interested in what you have to say regarding the country’s affairs.
A: First of all, I would like to thank you also for traveling to Equatorial Guinea to interview me personally. I really appreciate that you have come to Equatorial Guinea to see firsthand the infrastructural development and progress going on in this country, and also to witness firsthand the democratic process going on here.
Q: Has there been a disconnect between media portrayals of Equatorial Guinea and the actual realities in the country?
A: Indeed. This country is not the one you read about in the international media. That image and the reality on the ground here are totally different. So I am happy that you are here to see things for yourself.
It is important that all the people in the media, all those people who criticize Equatorial Guinea and me personally, have to come here to see things for themselves and also talk to the people of Equatorial Guinea to get the real truth – rather than rely on biased sources and reports.
Most of the criticisms against my country and myself are not based on facts and realities in the country. Our doors are open to the media and all groups, whether they are nongovernmental organizations or human rights groups. They should come and see things for themselves.
Q: What will these outside critics see when they arrive here and tour your country?
A: They will discover a democratic and a prosperous Equatorial Guinea. They will see the progress we are making. They will see a city like Sipopo, which you are seeing for the first time, which was built out of nothing, and in a short space of time.
The entrance to the marvelous conference center in Sipopo.
Q: I must admit that Sipopo is marvelous. The buildings and the architecture are fantastic. I’m told you built this city about two years ago and it was your own idea. How did you come up with the idea?
A: When Equatorial Guinea agreed to host the African Union summit in 2011, one of the obstacles I faced was the lack of infrastructure in the country. That was the first time we were hosting the African Union, and with about 53 heads of state attending, I wanted it to be very successful.
It was very important to create a safe and comfortable environment where all these leaders and delegations would feel at home. I therefore decided to create a new city with a modern conference center, hospital, a house each for the participating nations, a good road network, and other infrastructure and amenities. That’s how the city of Sipopo was created, and it has given our country a major facelift.
Q: Quite a lot of planning and preparation must have gone into constructing Sipopo. Is that true?
A: A lot of hard work went into it. And my joy is that we did it in a record time – two years. In the beginning, the idea was to provide modern structures. So we decided to build a highway from the airport directly into the city. It was very important to have a good quality road so the delegations could drive in comfort straight from the airport to Sipopo. And we achieved that in record time. We built a high-quality road that was praised, and is still being praised, by the delegations and all who used or use it.
Q: How did you go about selecting contractors for the project?
A: While deciding on the budget for the entire project, my government felt that it was important to choose companies that could build what we had in mind at a minimum cost and within the deadline. Luckily, we were able to find such companies who did not let us down.
Q: Who oversaw this massive undertaking?
A: I personally supervised most of the projects myself. I wanted high-quality work done with minimum fuss and no cutting corners. Thankfully, most of the companies worked really hard and completed their contracted projects in time, because we had only two years to build the city of Sipopo.
Q: Did you face critics and doubters as the plans for Sipopo were announced?
A: Yes. As usual, our critics said we were not capable of building such a city and that we could not even host the AU summit. We proved them wrong. Not only did we build the city you see today – with all its structures and amenities – in a record time of two years, we also hosted a very successful AU summit. All the delegations that participated in the summit congratulated my government for the good organization. It went on like clockwork.
Q: Has your country been able to make good use of these structures since the conclusion of the AU summit?
A: Yes. After the summit, the city of Sipopo has served as a center for many conferences organized by international groups and institutions. And many more are coming to use the facilities at Sipopo. The revenues that these conferences are bringing to the city are enormous. It’s good for our economy, and will help us to build more of such facilities in the future.
Indeed, the city of Sipopo has given Equatorial Guinea a new prestige, and we are all very proud of it. We are a small country, but we can do big things.
Q: What has been the reaction of those who initially criticized the plans?
A: Our critics are eating humble pie now. With Sipopo and the successful hosting of the AU summit, we’ve shown how wrong they can be in their criticisms. We will continue to work to improve the lives of our people despite the criticisms. Many of the critics have not even been to Equatorial Guinea before, and they will never bother to come here and see things for themselves, as you have come to see for yourself. So most of the time, their criticisms are not based on the facts on the ground. It’s just empty talk. Criticizing for the sake of criticizing. I urge them to come and see what we are doing. In fact, I challenge them to come.
Q: So you feel vindicated by the success of Sipopo?
A: Indeed. For us, what matters most is the welfare of the people of Equatorial Guinea. Once we get that right, whatever anybody says in the foreign media will not matter a jolt. The welfare of the people is supreme, and I personally will push, and am pushing, and have been pushing, for the betterment of the people of Equatorial Guinea, like we pushed for the creation of the city of Sipopo.
For the sake of the critics, I want to repeat that we are a small country but we can do big things. They should come to Sipopo and see it for themselves.
New commercial and residential construction and roadwork have transformed Malabo, capital of Equatorial Guinea. President Obiang says oil revenue is helping his government launch infrastructure projects all over the country – efforts that he says are attempts to meet the needs of ordinary citizens and promote modernity in the country.
Q: I can see it from the big things you are doing all over Malabo, the capital. There is massive construction of social housing going on, and also roads, ports, and electricity. Are you not trying to do too much at the same time?
A: The construction and new developments are not only in the capital, Malabo; they are all over the country, especially on the mainland and also in all the provinces.
Our second most important city is called Bata. I think it’s important that you travel there and see for yourself the projects going on there. So we are not only doing these things in Malabo. It’s all over the country.
We want all our people, right across the country, to enjoy the boom the country is enjoying. We want every one of them to see an improvement in their personal lives and also in the environment in which they live.
In fact, you are not the first person to have asked me if we are not doing too much at the same time, in fact in a very short period of time. Many people have asked me that question, and I think you are all right. It appears we are doing too much at the same time. But what else can we do?
Q: As you’ve stated, Equatorial Guinea is a small country. How have you found the resources to finance these projects?
A: We are now blessed with oil, and we have high revenues coming from oil production. When we discovered the oil, we organized a conference on how the government should use the oil funds. The people of Equatorial Guinea agreed at the conference that the oil money should be used in developing the country – and by that I mean all the country, not only the capital or certain provinces – into a modern nation by 2020.
By that deadline, we have only eight years more to achieve our target. And so, we have to push ourselves to achieve our goal within the deadline we have set for ourselves.
That is why it appears we are doing too much at the same time. We want to meet the 2020 deadline, and we will meet it by hook or by crook. We are going to push ourselves like never before to meet the deadline.
Q: What will be your focus during the remaining eight years?
A: My focus now is to use the oil funds efficiently for improving the lives of all our people. And in the shortest possible time. And that is what we are doing. I am confident that by the year 2020, with the hard work now going on, and dedication and commitment to our cause, Equatorial Guinea will make it as an emerging nation at peace with itself.
Let me say that sometimes people unfairly criticize African leaders for not doing much for their nations and their people, without considering the limited financial resources at their disposal. You can’t just wish development for your country. You may have the vision and the drive. You may even have the officials and human resources to do it. But you need financial resources to achieve it. And if the country does not have the financial resources required to achieve such a development, you cannot do much, however well-intentioned the leader is. Luckily for Equatorial Guinea, that situation has now changed. We now have oil funds – our own money, thank God, from our natural resources – to develop the country. And we are determined to do so.
Q: It must be gratifying to be able to put these plans into motion. Is that true?
A: Yes. On a personal level, I want to prove to the world, and all the critics who never sleep, that with adequate financial resources, an African leader is capable of transforming his country into a modern nation. Those who may still be in doubt can visit Equatorial Guinea. I challenge them. They should come and see for themselves what an African leader can do with adequate financial resources backing him. We’ve set the pace and we will stay the course. Equatorial Guinea will never be the same again. I challenge them to come and see for themselves.
President Obiang enjoys widespread support among various constituencies in Equatorial Guinea.
Q: Is the country getting a good deal from the oil companies operating here?
A: First of all, I would like to recognize the contribution of the American oil companies operating here. They are doing wonders for our country. So I would like to recognize them and thank them for the good work they are doing. Why? Because in the past, other oil companies from other countries came to Equatorial Guinea to explore for oil – only to tell my government that we did not have any oil after we had given them all the support they needed. They simply wasted our time. And because of the lack of funds, our own funds, we could not do much in terms of developing the country.
So we have to really applaud and recognize the contributions that the American oil companies have made in the discovery of oil here, and the revenues that have since accrued from the discovery of oil. I am really grateful to them.
Now, regarding your question of “getting a good deal from the oil companies,” I am not going to discuss in detail the agreements between my government and the American oil companies regarding percentages, figures, and all that. I won’t tell you that. What I can say is that currently the American companies are getting a bigger percentage than us, but we are nonetheless satisfied with our share – although negotiations are still going on between us and them, because we want to get a bigger piece of the cake.
Q: So the agreements are fair, but could be better?
A: All in all, the agreements are generally fair. And the revenues coming from the agreements are being put to good use. Almost all the newly completed projects across the country, and those under construction nationwide, were funded from the oil revenues. We are grateful to the American oil companies for investing here and helping us to achieve what we had long wanted to achieve. Thanks to them, we are really developing the country now. And with their continued support, we will turn this small country into a giant in terms of development in the next few years.
We are determined to meet the 2020 deadline we have set for ourselves. The oil funds are for the country, not for me personally, and we are keen to use them to build the country into a modern nation that all the people of Equatorial Guinea and all Africans will be proud of. Just come back in a couple of years’ time and see it for yourself. I am determined to put the critics to shame.
Q: Talking about the critics, do you get interference from the likes of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in running your economy? Many African countries are not happy about being pushed around by these institutions.
A: Yes, we were getting a lot of interference from the IMF and the World Bank about how we should use our own resources. They had the good grace to tell us what to do in terms of our finances and economy.
No wonder we had a major misunderstanding with the IMF. They presented to us a program on how the government was supposed to run the economy and social services and what to do with our money. We disagreed with them big-time. We didn’t think their program would work in Equatorial Guinea. So we told them so, in a forceful kind of way. So they left and didn’t want to have anything to do with us again.
Q: But that is all in the past now?
A: Yes. We have patched up our differences now, and both the IMF and the World Bank are back. Now they understand us better and we are working together to move our nation forward. Like most international institutions, the IMF and the World Bank have finally realized that my government is on the right track to deliver not only to the people of Equatorial Guinea but the whole of Africa. They see us now as one of the beacons of hope on the continent, and they want to guide and support us.
We also appreciate their efforts, their good efforts and contributions. The past quarrels have turned out to be a blessing after all. Now they know how far they can push us, and how far we will accept that push. They know we have capable men and women in this country to run our own affairs. They know we have the ability to take our destiny in our own hands.
Q: So, in a way, by standing up to the IMF and World Bank, you seem to have fostered a better relationship?
A: Yes, the past quarrels have brought some mutual respect between our country and the international institutions. And we recognize and appreciate the contributions they are making now toward our development. Together we will speed up the transformation of Equatorial Guinea into an emerging nation in this corner of Africa.
Q: In your speech marking the opening of the ninth Leon H. Sullivan Summit, you said, “It’s true we have problems, but it also needs to be recognized that we have reached significant progress in the areas of education, health care, technology, infrastructure and others.” What are some of the achievements in these areas?
A: We have worked very hard to improve all the sectors in this country, especially education. At independence, we had very few local professionals, but since then we have built up the capacity of our local human resources to a level that we are proud of today.
The country now boasts a highly educated work force. Some of them were trained abroad and others were trained right here in Equatorial Guinea.
At independence, we didn’t have even one university, not one. So people who have developed the habit of criticizing African countries for not achieving a higher level of development since the continent attained political independence 50 years ago should put their thinking caps on and see the context in which they are criticizing us.
For how long were the colonialists here, ruling over us? For more than 100 long years. And what did they do all this time, I ask?
Today, from our own meager resources, we have built a fine university and are now in the process of building another one. We have also built other professional and training institutions. So in the area of education, we have done a great deal already as a country.
Q: How about the health sector? What have you accomplished there?
A: In the health sector, we have built, and are still building, more hospitals and clinics, which are fully equipped to cater to the needs of our people. We have one of the most modern and state-of-the-art hospitals on the continent right here in the city of Sipopo. You should go and see it. It has fantastic facilities to treat and look after the health needs of the people.
Q: How about housing? That’s an area of great concern for many African countries. What is Equatorial Guinea doing in that area?
A: We are constructing new houses, especially social housing, for the ordinary people. I am personally interested in this area of social housing because that is where the real interests of the people who matter in this country, the ordinary people of Equatorial Guinea, are. Once we get this sorted out, and the ordinary people have roofs over their heads and decent places to retire to after a hard day’s work, then I can rest and say I have at last provided a legacy for my people.
So, social housing is a project that is very dear to my heart. And I am determined to see that it becomes a huge success. Our people deserve it, and my government is keen to provide it for them.
Q: As I look around your country, I also see infrastructure projects of various kinds. Can you elaborate on these?
A: We are also constructing new roads and rehabilitating our ports. Without good roads, a nation cannot achieve much. In Africa, we produce all these wonderful agricultural crops and without good roads they rot in the hinterlands. Our farmers cannot bring their produce to the markets without good roads and transportation. In Equatorial Guinea, now that we are blessed with oil funds, thanks to the American oil companies, we are opening up the country by building good and lasting roads.
In fact, our infrastructural development is there for all to see. One can’t hide these things. You can’t hide a road or claim to have built one if you haven’t. Though this is your first time in our country, I guess you have seen with your own eyes what we have done and are still doing. That is why I say our infrastructural development is there for all to see. And I challenge our critics to come and see it for themselves.
Q: And, overall, the nation’s economy is benefitting from these initiatives?
A: Our economy too is now stronger than ever. More investors are coming in, and we are generating more jobs for our people. Things are really getting better here. We are growing, and Africa is growing. Last year, despite the global economic crisis, and even as Europe was being swept away by a financial meltdown, African economies were growing by an average of 5 percent. We are not doing badly at all.
Q: Despite the success you are talking about, there must still be some lingering problems you are facing as a country. Can you talk about these?
A: Of course, yes. We are not out of the woods yet. The continent of Africa has a lot of problems and Equatorial Guinea is on the continent of Africa. As Africans and developing nations, we face a lot of difficulties and obstacles as we try to develop our economies.
For example, some countries outside our continent have arrogated to themselves the power to impose systems, conditions, policies, and even their way of life on our countries. That makes it difficult for us to focus on our economic, social, and political development at our own pace, in our own time, and in our own unique African way.
Q: You see it as an unjust imposition?
A: Yes. It is very unfair and unjust for these countries to attempt to hijack our destinies. You can’t play hide-and-seek with the lives and future of the millions and millions of Africans on this continent. That is why we feel most passionately about this point. The political and other systems that these foreign powers want to impose on Africa do not really fit our local conditions and environment because of the different cultural and social backgrounds between us and them.
Yet, by virtue of the fact that they were our former colonial masters, they now want to impose on us systems and policies that do not fit our local conditions.
To me, I believe that these countries do not have the interests of Africa at heart. They don’t really want the African countries to progress. They want to keep our countries under their thumbs. That’s why I say the African continent has both its hands and legs firmly tied by the impositions from the outside. That’s why sometimes we can’t move. It’s hard for us to move because we feel like our legs and hands are tied by the impositions effected by the Western countries.
But you can’t impose a political system on another people. That system may be good for you because of your own unique local conditions. You cannot therefore come here and say this is the best system for you because it works for me in Europe. Europe is not Africa. Europe has had hundreds of years, if not thousands of years, to evolve. Its systems have evolved over time. There was a lot of trial-and-error involved.
President Obiang, pictured here displaying some dancing skills with a pair of young traditional cultural performers, maintains good connections with ordinary citizens.
Q: Yet there are consequences whenever an African country tries to resist these outside influences. Isn’t that true?
A: Indeed. If an African country or leader refuses to go by the impositions from the outside, they are immediately tagged as dictators, worthy to be brought down. Then you see all the might of the former colonial powers and their allies brought together to pressurize such African leaders and countries to bend the knee. If they continue to refuse, various means – including harsh criticisms – are used to make such leaders to crumble. It is not fair and just to subject our countries to such blackmail. The Western powers should stop using such tactics to get their way in Africa.
Q: Last November, Equatorial Guinea approved a list of constitutional reforms designed to promote transparency in government, and bolster the judicial and executive branches of government. Could you tell us more about these reforms and how important they are to the political development of the country?
A: The reforms announced last November are aimed at improving the political system already in place here. For example, we only had a unicameral parliament, but now we are going to have two chambers of parliament, with the addition of a Senate.
The reforms come from our determination to make the business of government more effective and transparent. It is also to revamp the whole philosophy of governance in this country. For that reason, we studied our original constitution to find out how best we could improve on it. It’s something that we chose to do ourselves because we felt it would benefit the country. That is why we decided to add a second chamber to parliament. We think an upper house, a Senate, will enhance the business of parliament and make governance more transparent and mature in this country.
All in all, the new political institutions we have created and the people who will participate in them will bring a new political experience to this country and enhance our democracy. They will also guide and advise the government on different political issues.
Q: Any other significant changes?
A: We have also added another institution, the Social and Economic Commission, to be in charge of everything related to the economy. The commission’s job will be to analyze all economic matters and provide an economic and social vision that the government will pursue.
We have also added another institution to the new constitution, the Accountability Tribunal, which will be responsible for fighting corruption in this country. It will issue an annual corruption report that will examine people who work in government and who take undue advantage of national resources for their own selfish ends.
All the new institutions we have added to the constitution will jointly enhance our democracy and work to defend the interests of the people. They will make government more accountable to the people who elected it, and also check corruption in higher places and abuse of power by people who work in government.
For example, the Accountability Tribunal will allow the ordinary people of this country who have been abused by people in authority, or who think they have not received fair justice in the judicial system, to seek redress.
Q: Why was the formation of the tribunal necessary?
A: At the moment we have a problem in this country where people who think they have been wrongly treated by the judicial system take their cases to a body attached to parliament. We have a department in parliament responsible for such complaints, and it seems that people don’t trust the judicial system anymore, and as such everybody is going to the parliamentary body to present their cases and overwhelming its services.
So the new Accountability Tribunal will take the burden off the shoulders of the parliamentary body and give a listening ear to people who think they have been badly treated by the judiciary. The tribunal will listen to them and fight for their rights, and also for all the things for which they feel they have not received proper justice.
The new constitution also allows the ordinary people to take part in all the policies and actions of the government. We want the people to be part of the governance of this country and make contributions to the day-to-day running of national affairs. We also want them to know that the government is there for them, and to help and support them in everything. For that reason, I believe that the new political reforms are going to benefit all the people of Equatorial Guinea.
Q: Do any of the reforms affect your position, the office of president?
A: Yes. In fact, I have forgotten about one of the most important political reforms introduced last year: term limits for the presidency. Now it is going to be two terms of seven years each. After those 14 years, the incumbent president will not be eligible to run again for office. It is a very important addition to the new constitution that I think should be highlighted. It will change the face of governance in this country and hugely improve the democracy we are building here.
Q: A section of the international media and some human rights groups are harshly criticizing you on issues such as governance and the rule of law. Do you think they just don’t understand you?
A: Yes, I believe that all these international institutions and human rights groups don’t really understand me, or they don’t want to. We fought colonialism in the past, and even now I think the effects of colonialism have not yet gone from the face of the African continent and from our country certainly.
Q: Why do you think this is the case?
A: I see that the former colonial masters still feel nostalgic for the power they lost over our countries when we fought and drove them away. Let me repeat: We fought them and drove them away.
Some of our people died in the fight. Others were imprisoned for years. But we drove the colonialists away, nonetheless. As such, they feel nostalgic for the power they lost, and somehow they think they can still hold our countries in thrall today by trying to restore, by other means, the influence that they had over us.
Q: What are these “other means”?
A: Sometimes they use foreign aid as bait, and sometimes they use their media and human rights groups or nongovernmental organizations. It is for this reason that I think they criticize me all the time. They are doing so because they can’t really influence my country and my government, and as such they have no power over Equatorial Guinea. So the constant barrage of criticisms against me personally, and against my government in general, should be seen in that context.
Q: How deeply do these criticisms affect you?
A: Personally, I don’t listen to these criticisms, I don’t care about them. My main concern is the people of Equatorial Guinea. The interests of the people of my country are the only things I care about. Once I meet the needs of my people, the foreign critics can please themselves.
I only listen to the people of my country, and don’t really pay attention to the foreign critics, because I think that the people of my country are the ones who really matter. They are the ones we have to please and work for. So all those organizations and international institutions, which have made a sport of criticizing me, do not matter at all. They cannot divert me from the course and cause that we have set for ourselves and which we are determined to accomplish.
Some foreign governments also criticize me but I don’t really care. Honestly, I just care about what my people say. I know our people are very happy with what we are doing here, and so they care for me. They want us to continue to build Equatorial Guinea into a modern nation for ourselves and future generations.
Q: You say these criticisms don’t affect you or worry you. But you must have some suspicions or concerns about these groups. Isn’t that true?
A: Perhaps I should ask the question, Where do all these international organizations, human rights groups, and NGOs who are criticizing me get their money from? Who is financing them? I will tell you without equivocation: They are being financed by foreign governments. These foreign countries are the ones who really finance the NGOs and human rights groups, because they are using them as instruments to create a lot of noise about governments and leaders that they cannot control.
That is why they are always criticizing my government because, despite all the criticisms, they have no control or influence here.
I firmly believe that all these human rights organizations and NGOs are being used or manipulated by foreign governments and institutions. Because they cannot influence my government by remote control, they are hiding behind all these so-called human rights groups and NGOs to criticize me constantly. It is a form of piling pressure on me and my government, with the aim of making us crumble to their whims and wishes. But they will not succeed. They are using the NGOs and human rights groups as instruments of coercion, to attack me and create unnecessary noise about my country.
But let me tell them this because they need to be told: They are barking up the wrong tree. By nature, I am a very focused person, and they can’t divert me from what I am doing for the people of Equatorial Guinea. We want to build a modern country from the funds coming from our oil industry, and this is exactly what we are doing. Any visitor to our country, such as yourself, can see what we are doing. Our people can see what we are doing. And they are happy with what we are doing. So what is the problem for these foreign critics? The evidence of what we are doing is there for all to see.
We are making good progress, thanks to the oil funds. You came here and you have seen the city of Sipopo with your own eyes. I didn’t tell you what is there, you saw it with your own eyes. You have seen Malabo and the infrastructural development going on in the capital. So you ask yourself, as a rational human being, why should we pay any attention to all the shrill noises and criticisms coming from the foreign critics who are hiding behind the so-called human rights groups and NGOs? Whose interests are these groups fighting for? It can’t be the interests of the people of Equatorial Guinea.
Q: Agustin Nze Nfumu, your minister of information, press and radio, was recently quoted as saying: “Before the discovery of oil, no one was interested in our country, but after its appearance, all of this negative information has appeared.” Do you agree?
A: Of course, he is right. Everything is about oil because when Equatorial Guinea was a poor country, nobody cared about us. But as soon as we discovered oil, all of a sudden Equatorial Guinea became an interesting subject for foreign groups and governments. And as I have already told you, because they can’t influence or control my government, they have resorted to shrill criticisms of me and my government. That makes me believe that the criticisms have more to do with our oil resources than what I and my government are supposed to have done wrong.
Equatorial Guinea’s oil is for the people of Equatorial Guinea. And it is being used to develop the country for the people of Equatorial Guinea. So what is the problem? Our main focus now is to use our oil revenues to develop the country to meet the 2020 deadline we set for ourselves.
And we say only the countries that have invested in Equatorial Guinea’s oil industry, like the American oil companies, are the only ones that have the right to benefit from our oil resources. Why? Because they have put their financial and human resources, even technical knowhow, at the service of our oil industry, and as such they deserve to have returns on their investments.
The other countries that chose not to invest in our oil industry have no right to expect to eat the cake with us, either directly or indirectly, through criticisms via NGOs and so-called human rights groups.
Yes, my minister of information was right: All the noise, all the criticisms, and all the attacks on me and the country are because of the oil. Why didn’t they do it when the country was poor and had no oil?
Q: Socially, Equatorial Guinea has been a beacon in Central Africa. Your country is relatively free of inter-ethnic strife, rebel wars, or violent demonstrations. What has been the secret?
A: I will tell you a simple truth. Equatorial Guinea has had a lot of problems in the past, and I don’t want us to forget that. We had immense problems especially during the dictator-regime that came before my government. Because of that dictator-regime, about a third of our population went into exile. They left because they couldn’t live in their own country.
It is true that the dictator-regime destroyed almost all that was dear to our people – their self worth, their principles, their security, everything. So Equatorial Guinea has had its fair share of the problems you mentioned in your question. And we should not forget that or pretend that it had been all smooth sailing in this country. It has not.
It is for this reason that it is very important for my government to listen to the people of Equatorial Guinea. We have to listen to what they say. So if you ask me about my secret, I will say listening to the people and doing what they want has been the secret of why we’ve not had ethnic strife or violent demonstrations in the recent past. I try to work with the people and listen to them.
Q: What specific steps have you taken?
A: For example, we have a lot of opposition political parties in this country. We have more than enough of them, I think. Some are moderate, some are radical. But we work together in harmony with all of them. And that is very important, and it is because of it that we have the peace that you talked about in your question.
We do even have some of the opposition leaders working in government with us. It shows the harmony we have brought to the politics of this country. And it is why you don’t see inter-ethnic conflicts or violent demonstrations in this country.
I think it would be unfair for the same opposition leaders and parties to organize violent street demonstrations against the same government they are working with. And remember, the violence might not affect me personally as president, but it will affect the ordinary people whose interests we all, including the opposition parties, claim to be fighting for and safeguarding.
To me, it would make no sense for the opposition leaders, some of whom are in government and thus benefiting from the government, to organize violent demonstrations against the same government they are benefitting from. It would really be a mistake for them to create such conflicts in the country. It would be counter-productive. And they know it. So we have peace in this country.
But as I said earlier, the secret of my success is that I listen to the people, I try to work with them and involve them in national affairs. By so doing, I get to know their real feelings and what they want from the government. It is very important to listen to your people as a leader.
Q: You were the chairman of the African Union from January 2011 to January 2012. There were several key events during that time, including famine in East Africa, the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and a civil conflict in Cote d’Ivoire. That seems like a loaded agenda for just one year in office. How did you navigate those difficult situations?
A: Well, it was truly a difficult period. I faced a lot of problems during my tenure as AU chairman, so I don’t know what to say. Was it God’s providence for me to be the AU chairman at that particular time and face all those conflicts and problems? Or was it just bad luck? I don’t know. All I can say is that I worked very hard to try to bring peace to all those troubled places, and to Africa in general.
Regarding the cases of Tunisia and Egypt you mentioned, I think they were internal matters that the people of those countries wanted to bring to the attention of their governments and presidents. And so there wasn’t much one could do or say about them at the AU or international level.
About Cote d’Ivoire and Libya, it was a different kettle of fish. One can clearly say that the two conflicts got out of hand because of external interference in the two countries.
In Cote d’Ivoire, for example, when I was AU chairman, I spoke with, and was able to convince former President Laurent Gbagbo to step down from power and he agreed to do so. I also tried to convince the other party to accept negotiations with Gbagbo because he had agreed to step down, but the external interference did not really give Gbagbo time to step down or engage in negotiations with the other party.
In fact, the Ivorian problem was not really a problem in the beginning, it was a misunderstanding. People went to an election and there was a misunderstanding about the winner. In fact, it amazes me that from that problem a huge conflict was born, that escalated to the level we saw.
Q: What do you think caused the escalation?
A: I believe that it was the interference by foreign countries, and the United Nations of all bodies, that really escalated the conflict in Cote d’Ivoire. It amazes me why the United Nations, an institution of peace founded to foster world peace, took sides in an internal conflict and escalated it by using its troops to intervene, even fight, for one side of the conflict.
Why didn’t the U.N. say: “Well, we know that the government of France has been neck-deep in this conflict; they used their troops to fight for one side of the conflict before the elections, and a lot of people died as a result. As such, France is no longer an impartial arbiter in Cote d’Ivoire. It should therefore step aside for really neutral countries to come in and help find a solution in Cote d’Ivoire acceptable to both sides.”
But no. The U.N. itself, under the sway of the Western countries in the Security Council, deployed its troops in tandem with France to attack Gbagbo, hunt him down in the presidential bunker, and humiliate him and his wife and family in front of international television. Yes, they paraded him in front of international television. That, to me, will forever remain one of the lowest points, even dark days, of the United Nations. Why the U.N. decided to stoop so low in an internal conflict baffles me.
And a lot of people died in Cote d’Ivoire because of the external interference. They really made the problem worse.
Q: Could or should the AU have intervened?
A: I believed that it was possible for the AU to find a solution, because, as AU chairman, I asked the international community to allow the AU to find a solution in Cote d’Ivoire. I told them that it was an opportunity for the AU, and as Africans, to solve the problem. It was an African problem that needed an African solution.
But they wouldn’t listen. For them it was too late, because they had already taken the decision to intervene and use their troops against Gbagbo, to remove him from power, and hand power over to the other party. So, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, it wasn’t the people of Cote d’Ivoire who removed Gbagbo from power. It was the French and U.N. troops who did it. It wasn’t even the Ivorian military that removed him. It was the French and U.N. troops – foreign troops.
Q: Why exactly were France and the U.N. playing such prominent roles in these African conflicts?
A: France played a key role in the Ivorian conflict because France had promised to give power to the other party. But they were not going to do it through the ballot box or negotiations, they were going to use the French military. And that is exactly what they did. And whatever we said as the leaders of Africa, sitting in the African Union, did not matter to them. That was Cote d’Ivoire.
In Libya, the conflict again started as an internal affair, like what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia, but it ended up in a rebellion sponsored by foreign countries. Suddenly, rebels from the east, who had no guns, got guns sent in by foreign countries to fight the government of Col. Moammar Gadhafi, who had been instrumental in the founding of the African Union, and had supported the union by whatever way he could.
In every country, if a government is attacked by rebels with guns, the government has the right to defend itself by deploying its army. That is enshrined in international law. And that was exactly what Gadhafi’s government tried to do.
In Tunisia and Egypt, the people rose up to demand a change in government without using guns. In Libya, it was different. The so-called rebel army in the east of Libya suddenly got guns from foreign countries and used the guns to attack Gadhafi’s government.
One can therefore understand what Gadhafi tried to do to defend himself and the sovereignty of the country. Even though it was a clear case of a government defending itself against rebel aggression, against rebels funded and supplied by foreign countries, the same foreign countries hid behind NATO to bomb and destroy Gadhafi’s army and his ability to defend himself and the country.
These same foreign countries again used the United Nations to impose a “no fly zone” over Libya. So really, Gadhafi’s hands and legs were tied by the international interference that played a key role in the Libyan conflict – as opposed to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which were allowed to be purely internal matters to be resolved by the people of those two countries, and not by foreign powers.
One can therefore distinguish between the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia on the one hand, and the conflicts in Cote d’Ivoire and Libya on the other hand. The first two were allowed to be internal matters to be resolved by the people of those countries themselves, while in Cote d’Ivoire and Libya international interference made matters worse.
For that reason, we feel that the United Nations, an institution of peace, shouldn’t have played the kind of role it played in assisting foreign powers to intervene in Cote d’Ivoire and Libya. That was not what the U.N. was established for. It has set a bad precedent for the world.
Q: What are your major concerns when it comes to Africa?
A: I am really concerned about Africa’s situation right now. We have the awkward situation in Mali, where rebels have seized the northern half of the country, and even in the capital, Bamako, power is being kicked around like a soccer ball.
You remember the military seized power only a few weeks before national elections that would have seen the president complete his term in office and step down. Since then, events have snowballed into a very embarrassing and unacceptable crisis. We hope this crisis is resolved soon to allow the good people of Mali to live their lives in peace.
Then we still have Libya, where even after the annihilation of Gadhafi and his sons, normality has not quite returned. Libya was a key player not only in the African Union, but also in the Sahelian region, where Mali is located. Libya, under Gadhafi, really supported the stability of the Sahelian region. It is no wonder that after the fall of Gadhafi, Mali should suffer rebel attacks that have succeeded in dividing the country into two halves. With Libya’s influence gone, the stability of the region went with it.
I now fear for the stability of the other countries in the region. Apart from the Sahel, we have a problem right now in Guinea-Bissau that needs to be resolved amicably and quickly. There is also the perennial problem in Somalia, which has been going on for two decades now. Sadly, that problem has given birth to terrorist groups that are killing people – not only in Somalia, but beyond the borders of the country. Terrorism in Somalia has affected its neighbors.
As AU chairman, when famine hit Somalia, I encouraged AU member countries to make generous donations toward alleviating hunger in Somalia, and the AU member states responded in a huge way. I am very proud of what we did at the time. It was a very successful contribution. And then I must mention the case of Nigeria, where terrorists hiding behind the religion of Islam are stoking ethnic strife and indiscriminate killing.
So my dream is that all those African countries that have stability and peace should contribute to the keeping of peace – not only in their own countries, but also across the continent.
As we all know, war and violence don’t contribute to the development and progress of any country. We should therefore do everything we can to avoid violence and war. We have to give peace a chance in our countries. The African countries that are lucky to have peace now should guard it jealously and do everything to avoid violence and war.
The situations in all the countries that I have mentioned are a concern to me and other heads of state in the AU. My dream is that all the countries of Africa will live in peace, so that we can have the time and space to focus on development issues that can transform our countries into modern nations. Peace is important; conflicts are not. The African people have to be counseled about the importance of peace and their own responsibility in attaining and maintaining that peace. If at all possible, we should strive to avoid violence and conflicts because we don’t really gain anything positive from violence and war.
Q: What legacy do you want to leave in Equatorial Guinea and Africa?
A: I would like to leave to the people of Equatorial Guinea democracy and a democratic culture. I want them to understand that violence is not worth anything. Peace is what every human being and country needs. Peace will help us to develop and maintain our infrastructure. Peace will give us the opportunity and time to transform our country.
Right now, Equatorial Guinea is at peace with itself, and if we succeed to build stronger democratic institutions, we will enhance the peaceful environment we currently enjoy. That is why I say that the culture of democracy is the most important legacy that I want to leave to the people of Equatorial Guinea. I want them to be conscious of the value of peace, the value of tranquility, the value of democracy. My government is working very hard to improve and promote democratic values, and it is very important that the people of Equatorial Guinea play their part. A prosperous future for this country can be assured only if we allow the culture of democracy to thrive here. It will benefit our country and the African continent in general.