40 Oil, despotism and philanthropic tokenism

This article was published in Pambazuka News, 14 March 2011[1]

Equatorial Guinea sits in the heart of Africa and is the fourth highest producer of crude oil in sub-Saharan Africa after Nigeria, Angola, and Sudan. It has reaped huge revenues from crude oil sales since 1995 when commercial export began, although discovery of the product was made in the 1960s. It is one country whose political experience makes the years of brute military rule in Nigeria a mere child’s play in comparison.

The current maximum ruler of Equatorial Guinea took over power in a bloody military coup in 1979, eleven years after that country’s independence from Spain. At that time, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo was a Lieutenant Colonel and his uncle, Francisco Macia Nguema, was the president. He is said to have personally supervised the execution of his uncle by firing squad and has reigned supreme over the country of less than a million people since then.

The nation’s GDP of about US$37,900 is many times greater than that of Nigeria. The truth, however, is that the high GDP does not translate to a better life for the people. Since the ascendancy of crude oil as a major income earner, other aspects of the economy, especially production of agricultural produce such as cocoa, have suffered neglect. Does that not remind you of Nigeria?

While looking up on President Nguema, one could not avoid visiting the pages of Wikipedia[2] where a part of the entry on this man reveals the following: ‘In July 2003, state-operated radio declared Obiang to be a god who is in permanent contact with the Almighty’ and ‘can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell.’ He personally made similar comments in 1993. Despite these comments, he still claims that he is a devout Catholic and was invited to the Vatican by John Paul II and again by Benedict XVI. Macías had also proclaimed himself a god.’

Standing up to the despot

The president, his family, relatives, and friends are said to own most businesses in the country. With the severe curtailment of freedom in the country, it has come as a vent of fresh air when the writer, Juan Tomas Avila Laurel, called for change and embarked on a hunger strike demanding an end to the despotic reign in his country.

In a letter to Jose Bono Martinez, the president of Spanish parliament, dated 11 February 2011, Mr. Laurel states among other things that,

‘Since you believe so deeply in the moral solvency of President Obiang, who has been in power since 1979, we fervently request that you exert some influence and take steps towards the formation of a government of transition; one in which those who have held positions in the last 32 years in Equatorial Guinea must not take any part.

‘This is not a political demand, as it might seem to you, but a socially and morally driven one. We cannot continue living under a dictatorship that eats away at our very souls.

‘Mr. Bono, all we are asking is that you find asylum in a safe country for Obiang, his son Teodorin, first lady Constancia, and his brothers and cousins, the generals and colonels who maintain this unspeakable regime. We believe that one-third of the money that any one of them has deposited in banks abroad would be enough to support themselves for the rest of their days. The remaining sum has to be returned to the country.’

The letter ends with a painful plea for intervention: ‘Mr. Bono, it is not fair for me to put my life in your hands. I will not deny, however, that whatever happens to me will depend in great measure on what you do.’

Gaddafi’s oily stand and neo-philanthropists

The events in North Africa and in the Middle East clearly highlight the fact that crude oil has been largely responsible for the entrenchment of crude regimes in the region.

This is particularly visible in Libya where the man who has been in power for over four decades clings on, threatens to cleanse the country of protesters house to house and if necessary blow up the oil and gas fields of the country.

This threat has introduced a new dimension to the volatility of crude oil supply and threatens to push prices to record high. Call him what you like, but Mr. Gaddafi and his cohorts have fed from the feeding bottle of crude oil and taking that from them without a period of weaning is bound to result in the slaughter and tantrums that are the hallmarks of the regime in Tripoli.

A quick look back at the third week of February 2011 shows that as we saw a fine slammed on the oil giant, Chevron, for polluting the Amazonian region of Ecuador, we heard of the company’s philanthropic move in the Niger Delta.

The gesture is a clear case of philanthropic tokenism. It appears that Chevron sought to draw attention away from the long-awaited verdict from Ecuador by moving across the Atlantic and displaying a suspect front of compassion in the bloodstained and oil soaked creeks of the Niger Delta. The link and the timing are inescapable.

The company announced with much fanfare a splash of US$50 million, ostensibly to ignite economic development and tackle conflict in the region— of which, it must be said, the company admitted to being a contributor in the past.

The money is being funnelled through the company’s Niger Delta Partnership Initiative and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and will be spent over the next four years. The thrust will obviously be to generate employment since the oil company hires only a tiny fraction of the millions it has impoverished through the destruction of the creeks, swamps, farmlands and forests that they depend on for their livelihoods through oil spills, gas flares, and the dumping of other toxic wastes.

These are interesting days indeed. Without doubt, crude oil business is not only volatile, but explosive. It is the stuff that oils the machinery of despotism and it is the stuff that blinds the world to the blood that flows on the streets as people fight for liberty.

It is also the stuff that bluffs and seeks to blind us from demanding environmental justice but accepting tokens.


  1. http://www.pambazuka.org/governance/oil-despotism-and-philanthropic-tokenism accessed (8 June 2016)
  2.  https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teodoro_Obiang_Nguema_Mbasogo (accessed 7 June 2016)

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