Squandered oil wealth, an African tragedy

July 9, 2009

arvind ganesan-Arvind Ganesan is the Director of the Business and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. The opinions expressed are his own.-

Equatorial Guinea is a tiny country of about half a million people on the west coast of Africa, but is the fourth-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa.

Most of the investment in the country’s multi-billion dollar oil industry comes from the United States. ExxonMobil, Hess and Marathon are all there. Right now, the U.S. imports up to 100,000 barrels of oil a day from Equatorial Guinea, or about a quarter of the country’s oil production.

Oil money gives the country the means to be a model for development and human rights. The economy is nearly 130 times as big as it was when oil was discovered in 1995. But as a report released by Human Rights Watch today details, the government has squandered or stolen much of the money at the expense of its people.

It is a sad contrast, since the country has a per capita income comparable to Spain’s or Italy’s and development indicators more like Afghanistan’s. For just one sad example, infant and child mortality actually has increased — from an already-dismal 103 deaths per thousand in 1990 to 124 per thousand in 2007. Similarly, under-5 mortality rates increased from 170 per thousand in 1990 to 206 per thousand in 2007.

The president and his family are doing just fine, though. They lead lavish lifestyles while most people live in crushing poverty.

A series of corruption scandals involving government officials and their families will give you some idea of how bad it is.

In 2004, a U.S. Senate investigation into the country’s dealings with the now-defunct Riggs Bank detailed how President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo used the country’s oil wealth to finance numerous personal transactions, including spending $3.8 million to buy two mansions in a suburb of Washington, D.C. That investigation led to one of the largest fines against a bank in U.S. history, and ultimately the bank’s takeover.

Obiang’s eldest son, Teodorin, bought a $35 million property in California in 2006. In 2004, he spent about $8.45 million for mansions and luxury cars in South Africa. His only known income was a $4,000 monthly salary as a government minister. His $43.45 million in spending on his lavish lifestyle from 2004 to 2006 was more than the $43 million the government spent on education in 2005.

The people of Equatorial Guinea have no way to hold their government accountable. Obiang has been in power since 1979, when he deposed his uncle in a coup. The government severely curtails press freedom and independent civil society, and the political opposition is weak and faces constant government harassment, intimidation, and arrests. In the most recent parliamentary elections in May 2008, Obiang and his allies won 99 out of 100 seats.

The government has joined the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an effort to make natural resources benefit everyone by setting a global standard for openness in oil, gas, and mining. However, the government has been very slow to implement the initiative’s standards. The danger is that EITI may give the government a veneer of legitimacy even while it stifles its critics and opposes real scrutiny.

Perhaps the best prospect for reform lies with the Obama administration since most of the investment in Equatorial Guinea’s oil comes the US. There are in fact things the administration can do now to break the cycle of corruption in a place like Equatorial Guinea. It should hold the government accountable for human rights and insist that it rigorously enforce anti-corruption laws. Under the Bush administration, that did not happen.

The same month in 2006 that Obiang’s son bought a $35 million Malibu mansion, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Obiang in Washington and called him “a good friend” at a news conference.

Unless the Obama administration makes it clear to Equatorial Guinea’s leaders that they must share the oil wealth with the country’s people , the human cost of the oil that the US imports from that country will continue to be staggering.

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