African Oil Giant Foils Alleged Coup

The government of Equatorial Guinea, the rags-to-riches West African petro-state where major U.S. oil companies have invested billions of dollars in recent years, has violently put down the latest coup plot against it, summarily executing at least a dozen alleged rebels and rounding up and torturing relatives and associates of an opposition party accused of sponsoring the coup attempt, according to Amnesty International.

In a communiqué issued over the weekend, the London-based group called for an immediate halt to extrajudicial executions, torture and rape by security personnel, as well as the illegal extradition of at least five alleged rebels who fled to neighboring Gabon back to Equatorial Guinea.

During an appearance on state television last month, the five confessed to taking part in a plot but also reportedly showed signs of torture, including having had their ears cut off, according to one opposition group that is based in Spain, Equatorial Guinea’s former colonial master.

The alleged coup attempt, which the government itself announced May 30, was the latest in a series of such efforts over the years directed against President Teodoro Obiang since he overthrew Macias Nguema, a close relative and reputed cannibal, in 1979.

One of Africa’s poorest countries, Equatorial Guinea, which consists of a sliver of the West African coast and several islands in the Gulf of Guinea, was long considered one of the continent’s most impoverished and miserable backwaters. Indeed, in 1995, the United States closed down its embassy in Malabo, the capital, as a cost-saving measure.

Just a few weeks later, extensive exploration by oil companies confirmed the discovery of major oil and gas deposits under “EG’s” territorial waters. Overnight, the country became ground zero for the great West African oil rush.

U.S. companies, led by ExxonMobil, Tirton Energy, Samedan Oil, CMS Energy, and Vanco have already invested well over five billion dollars, some of it underwritten by U.S. government agencies, into oil and gas production which could, according to some estimates soon eclipse that of long-time regional oil exporters, including Congo, Cameroon, and possibly even Gabon, with which the country an outstanding border dispute.

With a population of only 350,000 people and a yearly income of close to $500 million, EG has become Africa’s fastest growing economy, but the benefits of that growth do not appear to have trickled down to the estimated 90 percent of the country still living in poverty.

Part of the problem is that the oil and gas sector is largely run by foreign expatriates rather than the local population. Another part of the problem, however, is that Obiang has kept much of the income to himself, his family, and his cronies, according to numerous reports.

Although Obiang legalized political parties in the early 1990s, most of their leaders have chosen to live in exile. Nonetheless, the government has periodically claimed that it was the target of coup plotters from opposition parties and responded with arrests, torture and executions. In March, Zimbabwe arrested 70 mostly South African mercenaries who it says were on their way to EG as part of a plot to overthrow the government.

The president himself is reportedly guarded by some 100 Moroccan soldiers on loan from Rabat and has pushed hard for military aid from Washington, where he has become a frequent visitor.

At the time that the mercenaries were arrested in Zimbabwe, the government in Malabo accused Severo Moto, the exiled leader of the Progress Party of Equatorial Guinea (PPEG), of plotting to overthrow the government. Several PPGE members in EG went into hiding to avoid arrest, although their close family members were arrested in order to force them to give themselves up, according to Amnesty.

On May 30, the authorities announced that a group of Equatorial Guineans living in the Gabonese capital of Libreville had attacked a military base on Corisco Island the previous day in the first stage of what was to have been a drive to capture Malabo. It said five of the alleged assailants had been killed and five others captured.

According to reports gathered by Amnesty, however, 12 to 16 of the attackers – even those who subsequently surrendered to soldiers – were shot or summarily executed until a high-ranking military officer arrived on the island. The five – one woman and four men – who were arrested and then “confessed” to their crimes on national television the following day were believed to have been subjected to torture and rape.

At the same time, the government carried out a wave of arrests in Bata, the main city on the mainland, against relatives and associates of those who allegedly took part in the Corisco attack. Suspected PPGE activists were also picked up there.

Meanwhile, Gabonese security forces rounded up Equatorial Guinean residents in Libreville, including friends and relatives of those who initiated the attack. Among them was the suspected leader of the attack, Adolfo Obiang Bico.

While most of the detainees were apparently released within a few days, five of the attackers who fled Corisco Island for Libreville were arrested and “extradited” to Equatorial Guinea and are believed to be held in the notorious Black Beach prison in Malabo. As the two countries have no extradition treaty, the handover is considered by Amnesty to have been illegal and in violation of international human rights law.

On June 27, the government announced that it had arrested Marcelino Nguema Esono, a prominent member of the PPGE who went into hiding in late March. Discovered at the home of his brother-in-law, Amnesty said Nguema was shot in the stomach by police who then took him and three others to the main police station in Bata from where they were transferred to Malabo prison two days later.

“The government should allow immediate access to all detainees by their lawyers, medical doctors and family,” said Amnesty. “They should launch an urgent, thorough, independent, and impartial investigation into the summary killings of alleged attackers and the deliberating shooting of Nguema Esono, as well as into the numerous reports of torture and rape. The results of such inquiry should be made public,” it said.

(One World)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.