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August 2009 marks the 30th anniversary of Teodoro Obiang Nguema’s coup d’état against Macias Nguema, but it is not an occasion that many in Equatorial Guinea will be celebrating, writes Agustín Velloso. Yet for all his unpopularity, Obiang has won election after election with more than 95 per cent of the vote. Velloso shares with Pambazuka News Obiang’s strategy for playing ‘the democratic game’ in front of the international community.

On 3 August, few in Equatorial Guinea will have celebrated the 30th anniversary of the coup d’état led by Teodoro Obiang Nguema against Macias Nguema, his uncle and the head of the state. Obiang’s government refers to what happened with these words:

‘In 1979, after the devastation of a decade under the tyrannical President Macias, then-Lieutenant Colonel Obiang took control of the government and was named President of the Supreme Military Council.’

What did Obiang do while working under Macias’ orders to stop the decade old devastation?

The official history continues: ‘In 1969 Obiang becomes the National Guard Lieutenant, with all the forces and military quarters based in Malabo under his control.’

He became commander in chief of the armed forces in 1975, and ‘in 1979 a presidential decree made him vice-minister of the Popular Armed Forces.’

What did Obiang do in these 30 years to avoid another dictatorship?

In 1982 ‘2004 Department of State report on Equatorial Guinea accurately summarised its political situation: ‘Citizens did not have the ability to change their government peacefully.’

In 2009 the department refers to the country as a ‘nominally multi-party Republic with strong domination by the executive branch’.

For his part, Obiang thinks it wise to take preventive measures. He sends soldiers and policemen to assassinate, kidnap and torture his ‘enemies’, and in general to make life difficult for political opponents.

In spite of this and of the fact that there is no shortage of people willing to get their share of the enormous oil cake in exchange for loyalty, some still remain who do not give up. Some of these string along with Obiang’s pretence of democracy. Others prefer to try and oust him.

Considering their actions so far, it can safely be said that Obiang has clearly defeated them all. He intimidates, persecutes and entertains members of the first group, according to his whims. He attacks members of the second whenever he can. These have managed to discomfit him once, but Obiang’s friends and luck have been on his side.

Neither group of the opposition can claim that their respective strategies have come anywhere close to achieving their goals. The reverse is true, as chances of success seem to be inversely proportional to the increase in their actions.

Playing Obiang's democracy game is not an easy task. If a player does not perform as expected, other players will not take them seriously. Equatorial Guinea's leader of the parliamentary opposition declares again and again to the international community, to the media, to various international political institutions, that his party plays by Obiang's rules and also reassures the world that his party will only use non-violent means to achieve power.

But if the international community does not demand that Obiang play by internationally accepted rules to stay in power, why does the opposition think they have to do so? It seems the international community accepts opposition to Obiang as long as its leaders give up their people's right to resist the Obiang regime’s human rights violations.

Philosophers dealt with the problem of using legitimate violence against an aggression many centuries ago. Since the 13th century it is accepted that ‘in the case of a deadly attack, there is more obligation to protect one’s own life than the attacker’s’.

If a political party which opposes a never-ending dictatorship renounces legitimate defence against its violence, it is delegitimising itself, because it actually helps the dictatorship it claims to oppose. When this party seeks support from international actors, despite their party's poor record of resistance and even knowing full well their petition will be met with indifference, they are digging their own political grave.

It is true that a legitimate defence requires another condition, namely that there are reasonable chances of success. In this respect it has to be noted that it is all about not giving up the right to legitimate resistance. Further, there can be no likelihood of success if the possibility of resistance is totally abandoned.

The non-parliamentary opposition, made up of several small groups, has not renounced political violence. But its failure, too, is obvious and due mainly to lack of popular, militant support, to splits and internecine fighting and other shortcomings.

The option of a coup d’état has not yielded useful results. Nor is there much chance that it will. The lack of a popular militia and bad planning, along with the use of foreign mercenaries, explain the failure. Day after day, Obiang increases his own security, and he can count on foreign support. It seems that only a palace coup, like the one Obiang himself authored 30 years ago, is likely to succeed.

It can be said that the opposition too, like Obiang, have placed their hopes in foreign hands. The difference between the two camps is that European and North American presidents and prime ministers prefer oil in their own countries to ensuring human rights in Equatorial Guinea.

The struggle carried out by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) is illuminating. The oil plunder plus the damages it causes to the Delta physical conditions and to its inhabitants’ health, together with the government’s repression, are the reasons the MEND mentions to explain its attacks against the interests of the foreign companies that benefit from the oil industry with the consent of the government.

What is taking place in Nigeria, taking into account its much bigger size, is similar to what happens in Equatorial Guinea: ‘Since 1970, US$350 billion in oil revenue has flowed to Nigeria, yet 75 per cent of Nigerians live on less than US$1 a day. (…) Nigerian governments have negotiated joint ventures with multinational companies for unregulated oil production since 1958. Over 50 years of exploitation in the Niger Delta has resulted in systematic human rights abuses and environmental devastation.’

Against this the ‘congratulates the State Security and Armed Forces for their quick and efficient response and declares its support and solidarity with them’. It also reiterates once again ‘that (the party) rejects all movements aimed to achieve power through violence.’

While the Equatorial Guinea parliament unanimously declares the MEND .’

These words, of course, are also relevant to those in Europe and North America who ‘accompany Obiang in his efforts to improve democracy in Equatorial Guinea’ and to those who claim to support the opposition camp in its political activity.


* Agustín Velloso is a lecturer at the Spanish Distance Learning University. He carries out research and teaches about education and politics in developing countries.
* This article was revised by Toni Solo, an activist based in Nicaragua.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.