Freedom in the World 2009 - Equatorial Guinea

Capital: Malabo
Population: 600,000

Political Rights Score: 7
Civil Liberties Score: 7
Status: Not Free

Ratings Change

Equatorial Guinea's civil liberties rating declined from 6 to 7 due to an intensification of the environment of fear stemming from the widespread use of torture in prisons, as well as the denial of visas to foreign journalists seeking to cover the May legislative and municipal elections.


Local and parliamentary elections were held in May 2008 after President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo dissolved the legislature in February. The opposition condemned the balloting, citing voting irregularities and intimidation that allowed the president to maintain his stranglehold on power. The use of torture in prisons continued to be widespread, and foreign journalists were banned from covering the May elections, further restricting the media environment.

Equatorial Guinea achieved independence from Spain in 1968. Current president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo seized power in 1979 after deposing and murdering his uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema. Pressure from donor countries forced Obiang to legalize a multiparty system in 1992, though he remained in office.

Obiang won the 1996 presidential election amid intimidation, a boycott by the political opposition, and low voter turnout. The ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) won 75 of 80 seats in similarly flawed parliamentary elections in 1999. The president secured another seven-year term with 99.5 percent of the vote in 2002. He formed a "government of national unity" with eight smaller parties, but key portfolios remained with presidential loyalists. The PDGE won 68 of 100 seats in 2004 parliamentary elections, and allied parties took another 30. The opposition Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS) won the remaining 2 seats.

An apparent coup attempt involving foreign mercenaries was foiled in 2004. Several men emerged as the alleged coup leaders: Severo Moto, an opposition figure in exile in Spain; Simon Mann, a former British commando; Eli Calil, a South African financier; and Sir Mark Thatcher, son of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Moto was sentenced in absentia to 62 years in prison, while Mann spent four years in a Zimbabwean prison before being extradited to Equatorial Guinea and incarcerated in early 2008. Also in 2008, arrest warrants were issued for Thatcher and Calil. In March the Spanish Supreme Court reinstated Moto's asylum status, which had been revoked in 2005. However, Moto was arrested the following month for allegedly trafficking arms bound for Equatorial Guinea.

A separate group of 19 Equatorial Guineans accused of involvement in another 2004 coup attempt were tried in 2005 and received prison sentences of up to 30 years. Amnesty International expressed concern over the likely use of torture in extracting their confessions. In the years since the coup attempts, Obiang has freed or granted amnesty to some political prisoners, including Armenian and South African citizens, who were allegedly involved.

In March 2008, Saturnino Ncogo Mbomio, a member of the banned opposition Progress Party of Equatorial Guinea (PPGE), died in police custody. His arrest was in connection to the weapons that Moto was allegedly sending to Equatorial Guinea. Additionally, at least seven other current and former PPGE members were arrested in March in an apparent attempt to crack down on the opposition in advance of the May election. In October, opposition figure Cipriano Nguema Mba, who fled to Cameroon and was granted political asylum following the second 2004 coup attempt, was abducted by two Cameroonian policemen and extradited to Equatorial Guinea.

Obiang dissolved the parliament in February 2008 and brought forward legislative and municipal elections. A new pro-presidential coalition was created ahead of the May votes, comprising the PDGE and a group of nine smaller parties known as the Democratic Opposition. The coalition won 100 percent of the vote in many districts, taking 99 out of 100 parliament seats, while the CPDS, the sole opposition party, gained the remaining seat. The opposition denounced the elections, citing voting irregularities and intimidation.

Prime Minister Ricardo Mangue Obama Nfubea and his cabinet resigned in July 2008 over allegations of corruption and mishandling of the 2004 coup plots. However, Obiang reappointed most of the ministers to a new administration headed by Ignacio Milam Tang.

Equatorial Guinea, Africa's third-largest oil producer, has attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment. In 2007, contracts to develop new oil blocks were awarded to South African, Indian, Nigerian, and Swiss companies. The government signed an energy cooperation agreement with the Russian state-owned company Gazprom in October 2008. However, Equatorial Guinea's oil revenues do not reach the majority of the population. According to Global Witness, 60 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day despite billions of dollars in annual government revenues. Equatorial Guinea ranked 127 out of 177 countries on the UN Development Programme's 2007/2008 Human Development Index.

In September 2008, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon made progress toward referring their dispute over several potentially oil-rich Gulf of Guinea islands to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP) is also considering Equatorial Guinea's request for full membership. Obiang has promised to make Portuguese an official language, and Equatorial Guinea's oil reserves are attractive to CPLP members, despite the country's poor human rights record.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Equatorial Guinea is not an electoral democracy and has never held credible elections. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, whose current seven-year term will end in 2009, holds broad powers. The 100 members of the unicameral House of People's Representatives are elected to five-year terms but wield little power, and 99 seats belong to the ruling pro-presidential coalition. The activities of the few opposition parties, in particular the CPDS, are closely monitored by the government. A clan network linked to the president underlies the formal political structure.

Equatorial Guinea is considered one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Obiang and members of his inner circle continue to amass huge personal profits from the oil windfall. The president has argued that information on oil revenues is a "state secret," resisting calls for transparency and accountability. According to Global Witness, the government has not disclosed the location of more than $2 billion in national revenue. In August 2008, the president established a commission to monitor national oil operations. Equatorial Guinea was ranked 171 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Although the constitution guarantees press freedom, the 1992 press law authorizes government censorship. A few private newspapers and underground pamphlets are published irregularly, and they face financial and political pressure. Libel remains a criminal offense, and all journalists are required to register with the government. The state holds a monopoly on broadcast media except for RTV-Asonga, a private radio and television outlet owned by the president's son, Teodorino Obiang Nguema. Satellite television is increasingly popular, and Radio Exterior, Spain's international shortwave service, is listened to widely. The only internet service provider is state affiliated, and the government reportedly monitors internet communications. In May 2008, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) denounced the government's refusal to issue visas to Spanish journalists attempting to cover the legislative and municipal elections. In September, police raided the CPDS headquarters in search of a radio transmitter, despite a pending request for permission to establish a radio station with the Ministry of Information and ongoing negotiations between the CPDS and authorities. No further action was taken against the CPDS, but harassment and threats persist, according to Amnesty International.

The constitution protects religious freedom, and government respect for freedom of individual religious practice has generally improved. Most of the population is Roman Catholic. In June 2008, the government released Bienvenido Samba Momesori, a Protestant pastor who had been detained since 2003 for political reasons, although he was never tried. The government does not restrict academic freedom, but self-censorship among faculty is common.

Freedoms of assembly and association are severely restricted, and official authorization for political gatherings is mandatory. There are no effective human rights organizations in the country, and the few international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are prohibited from promoting or defending human rights. The constitution provides for the right to organize unions, but there are many legal barriers to collective bargaining. While it has ratified key International Labor Organization conventions, the government has refused to register the Equatorial Guinea Trade Union, whose members operate in secret. The country's only legal labor union, the Small Farmers' Syndicate (OSPA), received legal recognition in 2000. In March 2008, protests by Chinese construction workers over wages led to clashes with security forces and the death of two workers. The striking workers were subsequently deported and replaced by new Chinese workers.

The judiciary is not independent, and security forces generally act with impunity. Civil cases rarely go to trial, and military tribunals handle national security cases. In March 2008, a military trial began for more than 100 people, including security personnel, who were accused of looting the property of Cameroonian residents following a bout of crime allegedly perpetuated by foreigners in December 2007. Prison conditions, especially in the notorious Black Beach prison, are extremely harsh. The authorities have been accused of widespread human rights abuses, including torture, detention of political opponents, and extrajudicial killings. The UN Human Rights Council's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention cited the country in a 2007 report for holding detainees in secret, denying them access to lawyers, and jailing them for long periods without charge. In 2008, a mission by the special rapporteur on the question of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment was rescheduled for November after the government canceled a February visit. The special rapporteur issued a statement following his visit, noting systematic torture and appalling conditions for detainees.

Obiang's Mongomo clan, part of the majority Fang ethnic group, has monopolized political and economic power to the exclusion of other groups. Differences between the Fang and the Bubi are a major source of political tension that has often erupted into violence. It is thought that the Protestant pastor released from detention in June 2008 was detained in part because of his Bubi ethnicity. Fang vigilante groups have been allowed to abuse Bubi citizens with impunity.

All citizens are required to obtain exit visas to travel abroad, and some members of opposition parties have been denied such visas. Those who do travel are sometimes subjected to interrogation on their return.

Constitutional and legal guarantees of equality for women are largely ignored, and violence against women is reportedly widespread. Traditional practices including primogeniture and polygamy discriminate against women. Abortion is permitted to preserve the health of the mother, but only with spousal or parental authorization.

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