Our Dirty Love for Oil

June 2nd, 2011

Teodoro Nguema Obiang has controlled Equatorial Guinea since he executed his uncle in a bloody coup d’état in 1979. Equatorial Guinea is a country in Middle Africa on the coast.  It is one of the smallest and wealthiest countries in the continent, in large part because it holds Africa’s largest oil reserves.  Yet the wealth is extremely concentrated in the hands of the government and the ruling elite.   Over 75% of the population lives below $2 per day, 35% of its citizens do not live past the age of 40, and nearly 60% do not have access to safe drinking water.

Over Obiang’s three decades as president, Equatorial Guinea has witnessed many disappointments.  The IMF and World Bank have withdrawn aid programs, citing massive government corruption and theft.  The International Red Cross has accused Obiang of human rights violations.  Obiang has been called one of Africa’s “worst dictators,” along with Libya’s Muammar al-Quaddafi, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos. Yet state-operated radio has 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.”

To say he and his family exploit their country’s oil wealth would be the understatememt of the century. Confidential U.S. government documents uncovered by campaign group Global Witness show that Obiang’s son has purchased a $33 million private jet, a $35 million Malibu mansion, speedboats and a fleet of fast cars in the United States.  They also revealed that he recently “commissioned plans to build a superyacht worth $380 million.” That’s almost three times the amount Equatorial Guinea spends annually on both health and education programs. Given his salary of $4,000 – $5,000 a month as a minister, we wonder where this grip of cash came from.  Teodorin has vaguely—and insultingly— explained “I have been very lucky in business…and I like to live well.”

I’ve pointed out in cases before that the U.S. has acted in ways that have directly supported corrupt dictators because of its perceived national interests. This tension is perhaps most pronounced in Afghanistan. There the U.S. plays a balancing act between maintaining a positive-working relationship with President Karzai, who is elemental in the U.S. campaign to root out the Taliban, and eliminating the deep and persistent corruption that plagues Afghanistan, which is in large part perpetrated by Karzai’s own administration.

Unfortunately, in the case of Equatorial Guinea, the U.S. plays the same “balancing act,” but accepts the antics for one reason and one reason only. Oil.

As Global Witness points out, the U.S. government continues to allow Obiang into the country, despite the fact the State Department is legally obligated to deny visas to foreign officials for whom there is credible evidence of corruption. Some have interpreted this as tacit tolerance.

A recent article in the New York Times points out just this. It reads:

The American presence here is discreet but vital, and Mr. Obiang professes great love for the United States. Chevron, Marathon Oil and Noble Energy have substantial interests in Equatorial Guinea, onshore and off, and American oil workers are easily spotted at the diminutive airport at the edge of town. The sea around Bioko Island, where Malabo, the capital, is located, is dotted with telltale flares from oil company installations.

It doesn’t stop there. In 2009 the United States Embassy here advised that it was “time to abandon a moral narrative” about Equatorial Guinea and even dismissed reports of government corruption. According to a 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks, one diplomat praised the “mellowing, benign leadership” of the Obiang.

It would seem this isn’t much of a balancing act at all. It’s more of an unapologetic approval. But yet it is all a part of the continually rising price for our addiction to oil. When will it stop?

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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