When news began filtering out on Sunday that explosions had rocked the coastal city of Bata in Equatorial Guinea, there were fears it could be a coup attempt, given the number of failed attempts to overthrow the country’s government in recent years. But the cause of the explosions was more prosaic – and more deadly than any previous attempt to seize power.
The blasts were a result of poorly stored explosives at a military base in the city, President Teodoro Obiang said in a statement on Sunday night.
Almost 120 people were killed and about 615 were injured, according to the Health Ministry. Dozens of buildings were destroyed, and an eyewitness said it felt like an atomic bomb had gone off.
In his statement, President Obiang accused the military of “negligence” – even though he is the commander-in-chief. This paradox is just one of many that have come to define Equatorial Guinea.
The small Central African nation of 1.4-million is rich in oil and timber, and sandwiched between Cameroon and Gabon on Africa’s Atlantic coast. It is split in two: an island, on which the capital city Malabo is found; and the mainland, where Bata lies – the nation’s largest city.
It is perhaps not as prominent on the world or even continental stage as some of its neighbours, and even ardent Pan-Africanists might be forgiven for not knowing that Equatorial Guinea is ruled by the world’s longest-serving president.
Obiang, 78, has been in power since 1979, when he deposed his own uncle in a military coup. He won the last presidential election in 2016 with 99% of the vote, and has never received less than 97%.
The nation’s vast oil reserves should ideally make for a country where people live in comfort. But that is not the case here, where more than half the population live in extreme poverty and lack access to clean water and healthcare.
Instead, the boom sparked by the discovery of oil by US companies in the 1990s has been enjoyed primarily – and ostentatiously – by Obiang, his family and their networks of patronage.
His son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue (better known as “Teodorin”), who is also the vice-president, is infamous as much for his excess as for his apparently complete inability to cover his tracks.
In 2014, he reached a settlement with the US government worth $30-million, following allegations of money laundering that involved Michael Jackson memorabilia bought using money stolen from state coffers. Two years later, Swiss authorities seized a collection of luxury cars worth $13-million in an unrelated money laundering case. In 2018, Brazil confiscated more than $16-million in cash and watches from the vice-president and his entourage. And in France, he was handed a three-year suspended jail sentence for corruption in 2017, and then last year fined 30-million euros on similar charges.
Even Equatorial Guinea’s “legitimate” spending is excessive: the government spends lavishly on white elephant projects and events, including two Africa Cup of Nations football tournaments, in 2012 and 2015. And in 2011, a gargantuan Roman Catholic basilica was built in the president’s home town of Mongomo.
Dissent is not tolerated. Human Rights Watch reports that the few private news outlets in the country are owned by the regime’s cronies. Many of the regime’s opponents are in exile. Among analysts familiar with political powder-kegs, Equatorial Guinea has long been seen as a bomb that could explode at any time.
Until now, this was meant figuratively.
Tutu Alicante, a Washington DC-based human rights lawyer and the director of EG Justice, told The Continent the explosions constituted “gross and criminal negligence” by authorities. “It is incomprehensible to me that responsible military officials would keep explosives where hundreds of civilians live,” he said. With Covid-fuelled unemployment already a problem, the blasts exacerbate an already precarious situation. They may also fuel resistance to the regime.
“We [Equatoguineans in the diaspora] want to mobilise citizens in non-violent struggle, legal strategies and civil disobedience,” Alicante said.
He called on the AU and UN to take the people’s plight seriously. “We shouldn’t just leave it to Equatoguineans, who do not have access to independent media and resources, to stage the types of movements we’ve seen in Tunisia or in Sudan.”
This article appeared on The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.