Main languages: Fang, Bubi, Ibo, Pidgin English, Spanish (official), French (official), Portuguese (official)
Main religions: syncretic Christianity
The Fang ethnic group make up approximately 80 to 90 per cent of the population of Equatorial Guinea, chiefly in the mainland province of Río Muni (Mbini). The group divides itself into over 60 clans. Important minorities include: Fang not belonging to the privileged clan; Ndowe, a small group based on the mainland coast where contact with foreign traders goes back a century or more; Africans, holdovers from the tens of thousands (mainly Nigerian labourers) forced out in the 1970s; Fernandinos and land-owning and better-educated Creole people found mainly on the island of Bioko and targets of Nguema repression; and Bubi and Annobón peoples.
Bubi, the second largest ethnic group in the country, were the original inhabitants of Bioko Island where the capital is located. Since the early 1990s there has been a self-determination movement amongst Bubi on the island, and some have been subjected to arrest and ill treatment on the basis of their ethnicity.
The approximately 2,500 people of the small island of Annobón, 670 kilometres south of Bioko, exist in great isolation, having no link with the outside world besides the twice-yearly visit of a supply vessel. Medical care is poor and schooling non-existent. In 1993, security force violence against civilians, and the banning of aid flights, created extreme distress. An early 1994 report by a UN Special Rapporteur on human rights singled out Annobón Islanders, together with the Bubi, as victims of ethnic discrimination.
Updated June 2020
Since independence, Equatorial Guinea has been governed by dictators from a single family, with positions of political and economic power held largely by members of their Esangui clan, a subset of the majority Fang ethnic group. The current leader, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, took power in 1979 from his uncle Francisco Macías Nguema, himself President since independence in 1968. Obiang’s party, the Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea, controls all government decision-making. Obiang’s re-election in April 2016, with 94 per cent of the vote was aided by mass arrests of opposition activists before the election and censorship. With more than four decades in power, Obiang is now the longest serving President in the world.
Eligibility for top positions in Obiang’s regime depends on status in the ruling Nguema family’s Esangui clan, a small subset of the Fang ethnic group, who make up between 80 and 90 per cent of the population. With the exceptions of timber and oil concessions, most businesses are in the hands of senior government officials and their families, as are most opportunities to benefit from bribery and to allocate state revenues and aid funds. For the rest of the population, especially minority Bubi people, arbitrary detention and torture remain routine.
Overall development outcomes remain dire. Per capita GDP is among the highest in Africa, but Equatorial Guinea ranked 141 out of 189 in the UN’s Human Development Index in 2019. This is thought to be the world’s biggest gap between per capita wealth and human development results. On the ground, this is reflected in a grave lack of schools, hospitals and access to clean drinking water.
The Bubi people are believed to be the next largest group after the Fang. While the position of prime minister and other posts have at times been allocated to people of Bubi descent, this has been a largely symbolic gesture that has not challenged the grip of the President – and of his clan and supporters – on power. They largely inhabit the island of Bioko, where the capital Malabo is located, and some of their number are involved in a self-determination movement, the Movimiento de Autodeterminación de la Isla de Bioko (MAIB).
The approximately 2,500 people of the small island of Annobón, 670 kilometres south of Bioko, exist in great isolation, having no link with the outside world besides the twice-yearly visit of a supply vessel. Medical care is poor and schooling non-existent. With few resources and a history of discrimination, UN experts and others have expressed concern at their marginalization.
Updated June 2020
Named for its location near the equator, continental Equatorial Guinea, called Río Muni, lies on the Atlantic coast, bordering Gabon in the south and east and Cameroon in the north. The country also has several islands in the Gulf of Guinea, the largest of which is Bioko, where the capital is located. It lies about 40km off the coast of Cameroon. In the 1990s large oil and gas reserves were discovered in Equatorial Guinea’s territorial waters off Bioko.
Marked by 190 years of Spanish colonial rule, slave-trading and forced labour, since formal independence in 1968 Equatorial Guinea has seen no significant departures from an oppressive past. Power has been in the hands of two dictators since the end of the colonial period. Francisco Macías Nguema, who at independence was President in a shaky coalition government, consolidated his power in 1969 through fiery anti-Spanish rhetoric. Almost the entire remaining Spanish population of 7,000 fled the country. Macías’s sheer brutality against his opponents within the government instilled a climate of terror. Ten of 12 ministers in the country’s post-independence government were executed, all replaced by members of his small Esangui clan, a subset of the Fang ethnic group. All officers in the military were eventually linked by kinship. Macías declared himself ‘President for Life’ in 1972. A reign of terror saw thousands die, including two-thirds of the National Assembly. A string of civil servants, the former lovers of Macías’s many mistresses, any kind of intellectual, or anybody whom he disliked for any reason – all faced murder at his whim. In the mid-1970s, after a period of forcing priests to give sermons about his divinity, he banned Christianity, and all foreign priests were expelled. Then he ordered all schools to close. Governance did not exist beyond his crude edicts and erratic decisions, and the economy crumbled. By 1977 50,000 people – one-sixth of the population – had been killed, and almost half had fled abroad along with tens of thousands of foreign workers.
Fearing that Macías might take down the entire family with him in a spiral of insanity, his own relatives turned on him. In August 1979 his nephew Teodoro Obiang Nguema seized power, and Macías was subsequently tried and executed. The less volatile Obiang became President through a referendum in 1982 that also confirmed his dictatorial powers. Obiang invited refugees to return, released thousands of his uncle’s political prisoners, and allowed schools to re-open, but very little else changed in Equatorial Guinea until the early 1990s when foreign donors pressed Obiang to open up the political system.
By the mid-1990s, opposition groups were active abroad and on home ground in Equatorial Guinea, though within extremely narrow and life-threatening bounds. Their purposes are much broader than minority interests, being concerned with ending a dictatorship. But in 1993 Bubi radicals established the Movimiento de Autodeterminación de la Isla de Bioko (MAIB) to protest against the total marginalisation of the Bubi people in government and the economy – a political movement which was later to be brutally harassed by the security forces. Despite gathering opposition both at home and abroad (Spain and France – after two decades of tacit complicity – withdrew support from the regime), Obiang won the 1996 presidential elections with 99 per cent of the vote. Following 1998 attacks on military barracks on Bioko Island, hundreds of Bubi were reportedly detained and subjected to human rights violations by the security forces; Amnesty International declared many of them to be prisoners of conscience on the grounds that their arrests were solely on the basis of Bubi ethnic origin. International journalists covering the trial of some of them were expelled from the country later the same year.
One month after the 1996 election, as Obiang was in danger of facing renewed international pressure for reform, Mobil Oil announced that it had begun tapping offshore oil and gas reserves that had been discovered in 1995, including the Zafiro oil field – the single largest and most profitable oil field in all of Africa. The new source of wealth rendered the regime immune to pressure through development aid. In 2002 elections no sop to modesty or plausibility was required, and Obiang was re-elected with 100 per cent of the vote.
In 2001 opposition leaders in Spain formed a coalition and in 2003 proclaimed themselves a government-in-exile. Dominated by a Fang opposition leader, Severo Moto, it attracted some financing from hopeful businessmen but enjoyed little credibility back in Equatorial Guinea.
In March 2004 the government announced it had arrested a number of alleged mercenaries linked to another group of alleged mercenaries arrested in Zimbabwe. All were said to have been plotting a coup, but while the leader of the Zimbabwe group was charged with illegal weapons purchases, the rest of the group was only charged with illegal entry into the country. Trials in both countries convicted alleged plotters on various charges, but the case against the Zimbabwe group, most of whom had been returned to South Africa, fell apart. Following convictions of the alleged plotters in Equatorial Guinea, Amnesty International and the International Bar Association criticized the trial as flawed. In March 2008, Equatorial Guinea alleged that one of the plotters in its custody had named Mark Thatcher, son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as a financier of the plot. The following month, Spain arrested Moto on charges connected to an alleged plan to ship weapons and ammunition to Equatorial Guinea.
In legislative elections in May 2008 the ruling party had won 99 out of 100 seats. Obiang won presidential elections in 2009, and a 2011 constitutional referendum, agreed with 97.7 per cent of the vote, further extended his powers. But scrutiny of the government’s and ruling family’s use of the country’s oil revenues – and particularly, of the failure to spread their benefits among the general public – was growing. Oil production peaked in 2012, and is expected to end by 2035 unless new reserves are located, though natural gas reserves have also been located. Legislative elections in May 2013 were marred by unlawful arrests, denial of fundamental freedoms and other violations against opposition supporters. A reported coup attempt in December 2017 was perceived by some as a sign of growing pressure on the regime.
Oil was discovered in the country’s territory in 1995, and has become the largest source of wealth, concentrated in the hands of the President and his clan and supporters with little oversight, transparency or accountability. The global slide in oil prices in recent years hit the economy badly, alongside rising unemployment. Most of the revenue from the country’s oil remains concentrated with Obiang and his family, who have faced corruption charges in both the US and French courts. In October 2017 Obiang’s son Teodorin, a vice president of the country, was convicted in absentia by a French court of embezzlement; he was fined, given a three-year suspended sentence and saw his assets confiscated.
As elsewhere in the region, there has been a growing awareness of trafficking and related sexual and labour exploitation, particularly of children. In 2012, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, for instance, expressed concern that concerned that the oil boom had ‘increased the phenomenon of trafficking in persons for the purposes of employment and sexual exploitation’. The government took some steps against trafficking under its 2004 law, but to date there have been no prosecutions of traffickers under the law, nor has the government reported any victims.
Updated June 2020
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