Africa welcomes Russians but just as it welcomes Chinese, Americans Israelis or Arabs. The stake is high but it's worth a try.
Getting back is always fun. Especially if after a couple of months of your absence you find that not only the cityscape but even the ocean shore line have changed. This reportage from Equatorial Guinea continues the "Mysterious Country" story published by Odnako magazine a year ago. The author told about how he was impressed by the country's booming construction and high quality of new roads cutting through the jungle. Today you take the local construction sites and roads for granted. It took the country only a year to build a new airport in Malabo, a runway on the Corisko Island, new ports and ship yards, hotels and you name it. So what, you may tell. Equatorial Guinea is rolling in petrodollars.
What is interesting about the country is that Equatorial Guinea - a dictatorship, according to the global media - has not fenced off the outside world cherishing its newly found wealth but, on the contrary, welcomed everyone saying - the Guinean sun shines for everybody.
To grasp this mystery you'll have to give up your deep-rooted stereotypes and assume that the world is not just black and white. Even here, in Africa.
Actually, no African country is a traditional democracy (that is, from the European or American point of view). Most African presidents rule till the very old age regularly winning in sweeping victories in all-country elections, yet only very few of them have been branded by the Western press as dictators - depending on the global political situation at the every given moment.
Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo fall into the category of the wicked African leaders and is castigated by the Western media and the right wing as the vilest dictator of all times.
Actually, only very few of those who lament over the sufferings of Guinea's people, overcrowded prisons and the outrage of the military have ever been to this country. Personally, I've been there several times and never seen neither piled corpses of the tortured regime opponents nor crowds of starving people begging for help.
President Obiang has been in power since 1979 and formally is the oldest of today's rulers, or dictators, if you prefer it that way. He indeed rose to power through a coup d'Etat having toppled his uncle Francisco Macías Nguema. Under Macias' rule who was dubbed "daddy" by the people of Guinea, the country indeed was struggling, and there were piles of dead bodies in the streets and people dying from hunger. The country's population was down by almost a quarter. Some managed to flee the country, others had no choice but to stay.
So, it's quite easy to understand why Guinean people call the military coup of 3 August 1979 "a liberation revolution". After adoption of the constitution prepared by the UN experts, in 1982, the country had its first presidential election and for the first time elected Obiang as its president. Ever since he's been winning these elections every 7 years with the result that most human rights advocates find appalling - 97% of the votes.
However, I believe that even if the Guinea people were not as loyal to Mr Obiang, he would have won all the same without rigging the ballot. The victory would have been less impressive but still a victory.
"Equatorial Guinea has no social basis for political reforms. Its people are not angry enough with the situation in the country", says the leader of the Guinea human rights organization Tutu Alicante. He's fighting for Guinea's people's rights from the US territory with George Soros's money, despite the fact that in Equatorial Guinea opposition parties are officially legal.
Some believe that for many Africans power is still sacred. This is why their political regimes never change. The power is given to the ruler by God for an indefinite period of time and for his own good as well as for the good of his family, friends and his people. What do elections have to do with that?
I met President Obiang. He does not look like a man who believes that he has a direct connection line with Almighty. Rather he is a kind of god-fearing person and cannot help resenting any hint on sacred nature of his power.
He keeps repeating that Guinea is learning democracy. "I mean the today's western concept of democracy. We have to learn it yet. However, we have own democratic traditions here in Africa. Every village has a special pavilion - abaka, or house of words - a sort of village parliament that discusses every decision to be taken here. Collective rights prevail over the rights of individuals in our tradition, but genuine democracy involves respect for opinion of every single person, no matter if this person agrees with the community or not. We are heading in this direction, and I think there is no alternative for that", he says.
Many condemn parochial nature of power distribution in Equatorial Guinea. Allegedly, Obiang brought to power all his relatives who control political and economic life of the country.
This is true. In a country with the population of 500,000 people and polygamy traditions all people are somewhat relatives. A man who can afford to have 10-12 wives and all their children (and 10-12 wives are not a limit) automatically becomes a relative of almost all big clans and families.
Many from the opposition movement against Obiang calling to ousting him from his office are his relatives. One of the key witnesses at the hearings of cases against Obiang's eldest son, Theodorin, initiated by US and French human rights advocates was the President's brother-in-law. He used to sell timber with Theodorin (who at the time was the minister for forestry) and now he resides abroad and accuses his relative of paying him too many kickbacks.
Another interesting topic is prisons of Equatorial Guinea. They are indeed overcrowded but not with regime opponents. During my last stay in the country there was a major break-away from the notorious Black Beach prison in Malabo. Convicts simply ran away.
Most of them were the military who terrorized peaceful citizens. It's hard to say where Obiang gets his ideas from - human rights advocates' reports or his own understanding of the rule of law and military discipline, but the military who commit crimes against Guinea people get very severe punishment. It is them who get most of death sentences in the country, and not for the attempts to stage a coup d'Etat but for killings and murders committed during burglaries and muggings.
It is up to Guinea people to decide whether Obiang is a good or bad president. Some dislike his parochial habits, others are proud to wear outfits featuring their leader's portraits. However, no one can doubt that Obiang really seeks to change not only his country but also his citizens. It is hard to say why he wants that, especially given the fact that the second task is much harder to implement - local people have their own specific characteristics described below.
In his addresses Obiang underlines that Equatorial Guinea should not put up with the destiny of a poor country relying on oil as its only and limited source of wealth. The country should develop its tourism, agriculture and processing industry and put an end to its dependence on commodity markets' fluctuations and foreign exports of all the products produced abroad - that is every single product. It means that people should study and not shun work at farms and workshops - everyone cannot be a big boss. It's high time to change the mentality.
Equatorial Guinea was the hardest hit in Africa during the colonial rule. The poorest country of the continent was a colony of Spain, hardly the most prosperous European state. Unlike the British and French, Spain did not invest a dime in the country's infrastructure limiting its activities to production and sale of cocoa and coffee beans.
By the moment of its independence Equatorial Guinea was a country with no future at all. Famished population was running away, mostly to neighboring countries, agreeing to do the most dirty and hard work. They say that in Gabon some jesters established a sort of holiday - Day of beating up a Guinean, when people could kick and beat their Guinean servants. Today, people from Guinea are rather looked up to - small wonder, given the fact that the country produces 500,000 barrels of oil daily.
However, the worst heritage of the colonial rule was not the poverty but the deformation of mentality.
"Sometimes I think that the Spanish and us borrowed the worst features of both nations", says a famous Guinean doctor and member of Equatorial Guinea and Pan-Africal parliaments Hustino Obama. As a child, he went to Spanish school, during Franco's rule. "Many years have passed when I went to Spain to ask them for aid for our health care and they told me - You know, we've decided we'd better focus on Latin America countries that are closer to our mentality and culture. And I asked them - Do any of your Latino friends know words of Face to the Sun fascist anthem we had to sing in school?"
The Spanish prefer to forget about those days and, consequently, about our existence. In addition to their love to Franco, they spread Catholicism and wanted local population to be good Catholics and abstain from local creeds and other Christian religions. Like in any fascist state, children were united in special organisations and told to watch their parents informing the authorities if those did something forbidden at home. This system of mutual betrayal continued for quite a while and harmed many of Guinean families. Perhaps, this fact explains why today's Guineans are more reticent and suspicious and less active that, say, Cameroonians. It's the same fang nation that lives in these two countries divided only by the border. They have many relatives in both countries and visit each other. Even though both countries have the same currency - Central African franc - it looks different there.
In Cameroon with its buoyant commerce bills are very shabby and well used, while in Equatorial Guinea they always look freshly minted. It does not mean that there is no commerce in Equatorial Guinea - Malabo (the capital) and Bate (the biggest continental town) have supermarkets, boutiques, souvenir kiosks and even fish markets. However, supermarkets sell European products, souvenirs are made in Cameroon, Chinese sell their own goods and Nigerian and Cameroonian sailors offer fresh fish (they often work here illegally). Not a single product is of local origin, even beef is exported from the north of Cameroon, Niger and Mali. Spanish and French apples are cheaper than local oranges ripening at one's arm's length.
Changing mentality is harder than building new roads and cities, and the petrodollars' inflow only aggravates the situation. Perhaps, this is the famous "resource curse". Under the Spanish rule and before oil Equatorial Guinea cultivated coffee and cocoa, but today all the plantations have vanished. Rural population consists of old people and children, as all the young people went to big cities in search of easy money. However, no one can explain where they all work. Most of them have no professional qualification and cannot be all bosses - even taking into account the small population of the country - 700,000 people.
Even unskilled labor in cities is for foreigners - people from Cameroon, Ghana, Burkina Faso and others. A friend of mine hired a Cameroonian as a guard and paid him about 100 dollars per month. The Cameroonian is very happy, while a Guinean would want no less than 300 dollars and work halfheartedly for that.
It does not mean that there are no poor, even though we never saw real bums and beggars. The commodity-based economy makes some people (those who have access to oil money) very rich and other marginalized. However, in such a small and low-populated country with an intricate system of clan connections the oil shower pours over everyone, let it be in small droplets.
You can see nouveau riches and easy gainers everywhere. People leave expensive broken cars on roadsides, and they are not willing to repair them. It is easier to buy a new car. Pompous palaces of very low taste are mushrooming in cities. Construction materials are exported from Morocco, Turkey and Portugal by sea and when the supplies are delayed clients are ready to fork out up to 50 bucks for a bag of cement.
Several years ago a developer from Bate needed sand and he got it by excavating half of a sand spit near the ocean shore. As the result, the first storm washed away an entire fisherman village. No investigation followed - the village belonged to Nigerians and no one died.
Today's Equatorial Guinea is like a teenager who is physically mature and fit but still thinks as a child. Some call it African Cinderella - until recently it was the poorest country in the region and now almost a jewel of the continent. However, it would be more correct to compare it to an ugly duckling on its way to uneasy transformation into a beautiful swan.
Around big oil
A year ago we already wrote about Equatorial Guinea's economy and prospects backed by development of the oil and gas industry. No need to repeat it here but I would like to remind a couple of aspects.
In 2009 the proven oil reserves in the ocean shelf of Equatorial Guinea amounted to 1.1 billion barrels. It is rumoured that the Gulf of Guinea accounts for 10% of global oil reserves. For information: the country's territory is 28,000 sq. km., half as big as the Moscow region. However, its territorial waters (the republic has a continental part and five islands divided by rather large territory) cover 350,000 sq. km., that is the territory of the Gulf of Guinea.
Local oil and gas reserves are strategically important not only because of their scale. Unlike the increasingly explosive Persian Gulf region, this country's regime is stable and foreigner-friendly and has a direct sea routes linking it to the biggest consumers in the US and Western Europe.
It should be noted that Americans who produce oil and gas here, Chinese engaged in construction and commerce, Moroccans building ports and runways and many others who work in the country are interested in its stability no less than Guineans themselves.
When the world learned about the Guinea oil, Obiang took the only correct decision possible - he invited everyone who wanted to make money to come to the country. His calculations were correct - multinationals who came here became not only Equatorial Guinea's economic partners but certain guarantees of stability. Today, according to The Economist report, the economies of the Western Africa are the fastest growing on the continent. Equatorial Guinea tops the list with 14.4% of growth registered last year. To compare - Gabon's economic growth rate is 10.9%, Angola's - 5.1% and Namibia - 6.1%.
Ten years ago the same magazine qualified Africa as "lost continent" but for 8 years in a row economic growth of tropical Africa outstrips countries of Eastern Asia.
"During the 2008 economic downturn African growth persisted. Africa is very stable", says Mtuli Nkuve, chief economist of the African Bank of Development.
It is hard to expect stability from the commodity-based economy, and this is why Equatorial Guinea's leaders seek to diversify the economy. They came up with an official program for speedy development of the country by 2025, the year when Equatorial Guinea had to join the group of developing economies. If the program is a success, Equatorial Guinea would have every right to the title of African Cinderella.
Wealth of the Gulf of Guinea tempts too many. In terms of failed coups d'Etat the country could win a Guinness nomination, if therewere any. One of the first coups in early 1970s was attempted by famous British detective writer Frederick Forsyth who later depicted the story in his The Dogs of War novel. Later Hollywood made a film version of the novel with Christopher Walken as a noble hired gun.
Reality was more trivial. Forsyth's team did not even made it to Equatorial Guinea, getting arrested in Lanzarote island in Spain in January 1973.
Other attempts to stage a coup d'Etat were even more comical. In May 1997, two Spanish hired a Russian ship in Angola to transport tractor details to Equatorial Guinea. They told the captain that they were only technicians and the cargo owner will pay for everything before the departure.
At the day of the departure a fat black man came to the ship and informed the captain that he could leave.
"Leave?" - the astonished captain asked. And where is my money?
The black man said that in Africa they trust presidents and never question their words. The money would be paid upon arrival to the destination point.
"President of what?" insisted the captain.
"Equatorial Guinea", said the black man.
The captain did not trust him and went to the port administration who informed him that the cargo never had been examined by the customs. When they opened the boxes, they saw mortars and Kalashnikovs instead of tractor details.
As the result, Guinean opposition leader Severo Moto and two his Spanish advisors (one of who was from local gendarmerie) were arrested in Angola.
If it were not for these advisors, Severo Moto would be left in the Angola prison to punish him for his idiocy. But as the things stood, they have to let go all the three of them.
The next notorious coup was attempted in 2004 - it gained global coverage thanks to participation of Mark Thatcher. The son of the Iron Lady was an international adventurer who smuggled arms to Iran and recruited soldiers of fortune for military operations all over Africa. The Forsyth story - the real one, not the novel version - repeated itself with the only difference that hired team was sent not by sea but by air. The plane with the team onboard never made it to Guinea - it was arrested by Zimbabwe special services who passed the leader, Simon Mann, SAS soldier and Eton graduate, to Equatorial Guinea after he served his sentence in Zimbabwe for arms smuggling.
In March 2008, The Independent published a new statement by Simon Mann who told that Mark Thatcher played a much more important role in the project than it was initially disclosed at the court hearings and in press reports. What is even more important is that South Africa and Spain not only knew about the scheme but actively contributed to its realization. Mann confessed that his employers duped him having promised that Equatorial Guinea was struggling and the regime would fall under the slightest pressure.
The confessions of the former soldier of fortune are rather questionable, and no wonder that Spain and South Africa dismissed these accusations as unfounded. However, even Ana Palacio, a Spanish foreign minister in 2004, had to acknowledge that a frigate of the Spanish Naval Forces was stationed in several miles from Malabo at the time of the planned coup. She stressed that it was there on a friendly mission, but no one invited it there. Even if we assume that this frigate was there only evacuate Spanish citizens from Equatorial Guinea, its arrival means that Spain was aware of the plot. Nigerian pirates from Cameroonian Bakassi island were more lucky than white soldiers of fortune - they managed to disembark in Equatorial Guinea twice.
First time they did it in December 2007, right before the payroll day when the bank safe was full of money. Yet they were unlucky. The bank clerk heard shooting in the street and saw the barefooted and armed people burgle into the bank. She managed to press the button and block the safe door. Pirates failed to blow the safe or open it.
Malabo attack in 2009 was a tragicomedy. Four Guineans - two military men, a presidential guard and a customs worker - fired for misconduct set pirates' imagination on fire by stories about the newly built presidential palace in Malabo - allegedly full of money and jewels.
The pirates believed them and in the night approached the palace at their wooden kayuk boats. The problem was that the palace was half build and contained mostly books from the president's library. It was meant for official assemblies and no one stored jewelry there.
Several pirates were killed shot by the Guinea military, some drowned. The survivors disclosed the names of the four treacherous Guineans to the authorities. These four men were sentenced to death. The human rights advocates long referred to this story as an example of bloody extermination of the regime opponents.
Our country is small but it is all ours
"Very few African countries know what they want and make efforts to fulfill their goals", says general director of the Presidential military cabinet Luciano Esono Biteke. "We can do this. Our main risks involve piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and illegal migration. We are also aware of the hired groups financed from abroad for initiating subversive acts against our country. We have means and forces to counteractthe possible aggression but I haveto admit that controlling territorial waters that exceed the country's own territory tenfold is not easy".
Luciano Esono Biteke told us about the country's own naval forces - recently Equatorial Guinea acquired Bata military frigate that had no match in the naval forces of neighbor countries and was to guaranty security of Equatorial Guinea. We do not side with any political movement and would never admit foreign military bases to our territory. We are ready to cooperate with anyone provided that no one would dictate us their will, concluded the general.
"Unfortunately, in the first years after the USSR collapse Russia's relations with African countries reduced to almost zero", says Vladimir Yevdokimov, Russia's honorable consul in Equatorial Guinea. "It's shame, since we've always had close ties with Africa - until now you can find there many graduates from the Soviet universities, and most of these people hold high offices in their countries."
"Our return to Africa would not be easy and not only because our competitors already took most niches. Africa welcomes Russians but just as it welcomes Chinese, Americans Israeli or Arabs. The stake is high but it's worth a try."
The honorary consulate in Malabo opened only a year ago (the embassy that worked since 1968 was close in 1992), and until that time Russia's interests there were represented by the Russian Embassy in Cameroon.
There aren't many Russians in Equatorial Guinea, and most of them are members of local families. However, you can see there many citizens of former Soviet republics, and Russian language can be heard in ports, ship yards and docks. What is the most likely common language for people from Ukraine, Estonia and Lithuania?
Vitas is a chief engineer at a shipyard owned by a Guinean state company. He used to work at a shipyard in Klaipeda. "No more shipyards. Privatized and sold out. Actually, the entire European shipbuilding industry is almost dead. Germany is still trying to keep it afloat but it won't be long. This is now Chinese business - they build good and cheap ships."
"Good and cheap" - these words can also describe the former Soviet (nor Russian!) citizens working here. Our ex-compatriots have already put into operation a dock in Malabo that will build ships for Equatorial Guinea (including military ones). New shipyard interested neighboring countries who also need to fight pirates and patrol their territorial waters.
Every weekend the Soviet guys play football with the Israeli and Arabs - seen from Africa, the Middle East conflicts seem too remote and unreal.
I would never go back to Lebanon, says Ajidan, who owns a restaurant in Bate. In the evening his restaurant is full with Guineans, Arab women in hijabs and their children, Europeans with local girls - and they all have fun. Ajidan came to Africa 20 years ago and has been living in Equatorial Guinea for 17 years. He had two children from his Paraguay wife and has no regrets about his former life in tumultuous Beirut.
He said that he is quite happy here, has no problems with local authorities and pays only 13% income tax. Or 15% if he sells alcohol.
"When I left Tel Aviv a year ago, I never thought that Africa would be like that", says CEO of La Paz medical center in Malabo Mikhail Averbukh. Another La Paz center opened in Bate, two more are under construction. "This country changes before your eyes, I would have never thought it is possible!"
According to Mikhail, his hardest task is to change people's attitude to their health. Dependence on God is OK, but people still could help themselves. La Paz centers are state-of-the-art and even though their treatment is not free, it is quite affordable if one judges by the number of patients. Full pregnancy and delivery program costs 400 dollars, removal of appendicitis costs 300 dollars and neonatology is free.
"In Equatorial Guinea everyone drives like crazy, otherwise I have nothing to complain about", jokes salesman John. He is from Philippines, married to a Chinese lady who owns shops, bars and vegetable plantations. Guineans never condescend to farming, and Chinese immediately got hold of the market. Fan-Fan, John's wife, employ Chinese and Ghana people.
"How much will you pay for a photo of my garden?" she asked me.
A Ukrainian from Malabo chocked by Chinese callousness told that he once bought langoustes at a local market and offered them to a Chinese lady in the bar as a gift. She cooked them, and they ate langoustes together, but after the feast was over she asked him to pay for her cookery.
In the evening Fan-Fan bar is overcrowded. Some people are inside, others prefer stay outdoors. Her clients are mostly foreigners but the groups are mixed - you can hear Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Arab and English languages. Here you can find local ladies who can hardly be qualified as prostitutes. They have no specific price for their services, everything depends on mutual sympathy. Veterans introduced me to a girl who, despite her young age, has five children - from an Italian, a French, an American, a Spanish and a Russian. Diversification as it is.
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