Freedom in the World 2004 - Equatorial Guinea

Political Rights: 7
Civil Liberties: 6
Status: Not Free
Population: 500,000
GNI/Capita: $700
Life Expectancy: 54
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (predominant)
Ethnic Groups: Bioko [primarily Bubi, some Fernandinos], Rio Muni [primarily Fang], other
Capital: Malabo


Despite the release in 2003 of a number of political detainees, more than two dozen others reportedly remained in custody during the year. Meanwhile, three banned opposition parties announced that they were forming a government in exile in Spain. Revenues from Equatorial Guinea's large oil sector continued to produce few benefits for the lives of most of the country's citizens.

Equatorial Guinea achieved independence in 1968 following 190 years of Spanish rule. It has since been one of the world's most tightly closed and repressive societies. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo seized power in 1979 by deposing and murdering his uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema. Demands from donor countries for democratic reforms prompted Obiang to proclaim a new "era of pluralism" in January 1992. Political parties were legalized and multiparty elections announced, but in practice, Obiang and his clique wield all power.

Following controversial elections in December 2002 in which President Obiang won a third term with nearly 100 percent of the vote, the administration of Equatorial Guinea announced the formation of a "government of national unity" that brought members of eight opposition parties into the cabinet. All eight parties are considered close to the ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE). The country's main opposition, the Convergence for Social Democracy party, declined to participate. Its leaders, who had boycotted the December elections, viewed the offer as a ploy to sideline the opposition's effectiveness. Despite these democratic overtures, real power remains in the hands of the president. Key cabinet positions are held by presidential relatives and loyalists.

The UN Human Rights Commission terminated the mandate of the special investigator for Equatorial Guinea in April 2002, saying it aimed instead to encourage the government to implement a national human rights action plan. No resolutions were tabled against the country in 2003, a course of action that drew complaints from international rights groups.

In August 2003, the government released 18 political detainees charged with trying to overthrow the government, but opposition leaders and human rights activists say more than 30 others remain in custody. The detentions resulted from a mass trial in May and June 2002, in which 68 people were convicted for plotting a coup against the government. The trial was condemned by human rights groups, and some defendants alleged that their statements were exacted under torture during incommunicado detention. Opposition figurehead Placido Miko Abogo of the Convergence for Social Democracy party was one of those given amnesty after he had served 11 months of a 14-year sentence. However, under the terms of the pardon, the government may re-arrest him at any time in the next 10 years.

Asserting the difficulty of operating within the country, in September 2003, three banned opposition parties – the Progress Party (PP), the Popular Action of Equatorial Guinea (APGE), and the Liberal Party (PL) – announced the formation of a government in exile in Spain.

Equatorial Guinea is the continent's third-largest oil producer and boasts one of the highest figures for per capita gross domestic product in Africa. The expanding oil sector has led to more jobs, but the lives of most people have yet to change. U.S. oil companies have invested at least $5 billion in Equatorial Guinea since the mid1990s. In a move that highlights the government's lack of transparency, President Obiang has declared the disposition of the country's oil revenues a "state secret."

The government continued to work with the World Bank in 2003 after a decade of rocky relations. The U.S. plan to reopen its embassy in the capital, Malabo, following an eight-year hiatus underlines the region's growing importance to American oil security. The Bank of Central African States estimates growth in 2003 at an impressive 14 percent, almost entirely due to soaring oil revenues.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Equatorial Guinea's citizens are unable to change their government through peaceful, democratic means. Recent presidential and parliamentary elections have not been credible. The four main opposition challengers withdrew from the December 2002 poll, citing irregularities. The candidates said soldiers, police, and electoral officials were present at polling stations and were opening ballot envelopes after votes were cast. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo was declared the winner of his third 7-year term with 99.5 percent of the vote. The 1996 presidential election was neither free nor fair and was marred by official intimidation, a near total boycott by the political opposition, and very low voter turnout.

The 1999 parliamentary elections were also tainted by intimidation and fraud and were neither free nor fair. Many opposition candidates were arrested or confined to their villages prior to the polls. The ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) won 75 of 80 seats. In September 2003, the government announced that parliament would be expanded from 80 to 100 seats in elections scheduled for early 2004, although this is unlikely to significantly weaken the ruling party's dominance.

President Obiang wields broad decree-making powers and effectively bars public participation in the policy-making process. Most opposition parties are linked with the ruling party, and several remain officially banned. By moving the presidential election up two months and jailing political opponents, Obiang could be hoping to avoid controversy, such as the claims of fraud that followed previous elections.

Press freedom is constitutionally guaranteed, but the government restricts those rights in practice. Nearly all print and broadcast media are state run and tightly controlled. The 1992 press law authorizes government censorship of all publications. Mild criticism of infrastructure and public institutions is allowed, but nothing disparaging about the president or security forces is tolerated. Publications that irk the government are banned from the newsstands without explanation.

Foreign publications have become more widely available in recent years. The shortwave programs of Radio France Internationale and Radio Exterior (the international shortwave service from Spain) can be heard. A few small independent newspapers publish occasionally, but they exercise self-censorship, and all journalists must be registered. Journalists, political leaders, and association heads have complained of increasing difficulties in accessing the Internet. They said illegal wiretapping had increased and that the country's sole Internet service provider allegedly monitors e-mail traffic closely.

About 80 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Freedom of individual religious practice is generally respected, although President Obiang has warned the clergy against interfering in political affairs. Monopoly political power by the president's Mongomo clan of the majority Fang ethnic group persists. Differences between the Fang and the Bubi are a major source of political tension that often has erupted into violence. Fang vigilante groups have been allowed to abuse Bubi citizens with impunity. The government does not restrict academic freedom.

Freedom of association and assembly is restricted. Authorization must be obtained for any gathering of 10 or more people for purposes the government deems political. There are no effective domestic human rights organizations in the country, and the few international nongovernmental organizations operating in Equatorial Guinea are prohibited from promoting or defending human rights. Dozens of opposition activists remain in prison.

Steps have been taken to reform the labor sector. The country's first labor union, the Small Farmers Syndicate, received legal recognition in 2000 and is independent. The government has ratified all International Labor Organization conventions. There are many legal steps required prior to collective bargaining.

The judiciary is not independent, and laws on search and seizure – as well as detention – are routinely ignored by security forces, which act with impunity. Civil cases rarely go to trial. A military tribunal handles cases tied to national security. Unlawful arrests remain commonplace. Prison conditions are extremely harsh, and abuse combined with poor medical care has led to several deaths.

Constitutional and legal protections of equality for women are largely ignored. Traditional practices discriminate against women, and few have educational opportunities or participate in the formal (business) economy or government. Violence against women is reportedly widespread. There is no children's rights policy.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.