Who’s Africa’s Worst Leader?

June 24, 2008

A pop quiz: Who is the worst dictator in Africa?

a) Robert Mugabe
b) Robert Mugabe
c) Robert Mugabe
d) None of the above

The answer seems obvious. Thanks to extensive coverage in the news media and abundant criticism by Western governments, everyone knows that Zimbabwe’s leader is trying to hang onto power by crushing his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, who would roll to victory in the final round of elections on June 27 if his followers were not being killed, beaten, jailed, or harassed by state thugs. Even President George W. Bush described Mugabe’s rule as a “nightmare.”

But Mugabe may not be Africa’s worst. That prize arguably goes to Teodoro Obiang, the ruler of Equatorial Guinea whose life seems a parody of the dictator genre. Years of violent apprenticeship in a genocidal regime led by a crazy uncle? Check. Power grab in a coup against the murderous uncle? Check. Execution of now-deposed uncle by firing squad? Check. Proclamation of self as “the liberator” of the nation? Check. Govern for decades in a way that prompts human rights groups to accuse your regime of murder, torture, and corruption? Check, check, and check.

Obiang, who seized power in 1979, had promised to be kinder and gentler than his predecessor, but in the 1990s, even the U.S. ambassador to Equatorial Guinea received a death threat from a regime insider, the ambassador has said, and had to be evacuated. Not long after that, offshore oil was discovered, but the first wave of revenues—about $700 million—was transferred into secret accounts under Obiang’s personal control. The latest chapter, written in the last month, may be the least surprising, because Obiang’s ruling party won 99 of the 100 seats in legislative elections. A government press release, hailing Obiang as the “Militant Brother Founding President of the PDGE,” carried the headline, “Democracy at Its Peak in Equatorial Guinea.”

If you haven’t heard any of this, don’t worry; as far as I can tell, the only American journalist who has reported on Obiang’s electoral theft is Ken Silverstein, who writes for Harper’s and has for many years poured out a primal scream of investigative reports into Obiang’s misrule. Other than Silverstein’s recent postings and several wire-service stories that were not picked up in America, there has been a vacuum of coverage about a suppression of democracy in Africa that is more complete than what Mugabe is trying to get away with. True, Equatorial Guinea is a small country with a population of less than 1 million, its economy is expanding in an oil boom, and Obiang’s “victory” did not require the obvious and crude violence of Mugabe’s ongoing terror. But Obiang’s enforcers don’t need to club people on the streets. His would-be opponents are too frightened to openly demonstrate against him. His is the Switzerland of dictatorships—so effective at enforcing obedience that the spectacle of unrest is invisible.

The reality of the regime’s brutishness nearly hit me over the head as I was being expelled from the country while researching a book on oil in 2004. I had already been chilled by the docility of the people—unlike other countries in the Third World, no one approached me as I walked the streets. (The only place where I had felt a similar pattern of fear was North Korea.) After I had been in Equatorial Guinea for a bit more than a week, the minister of information, Alfonso Nsue Mokuy, summoned me to the patio of the Bahia Hotel, where Frederick Forsyth had written The Dogs of War, and told me I was an anti-Obiang agitator or a spy—he wasn’t sure which. I would be on the next plane out of the country, he said. One of his aides escorted me to the airport, and soon after we arrived, the minister showed up and rifled through my bags, seizing memory chips and notes, accusing me of being a spy (he had concluded I was not an agitator), and threatening to take me downtown for a real Obiang-style interrogation.

To understand what happened next, and to understand a crucial reason why we hear little about Obiang, you need to know that since oil was found in the country’s waters in the Gulf of Guinea, ExxonMobil, Marathon Oil, Chevron, and other firms have invested more than $10 billion to extract the treasure, transforming Equatorial Guinea into the third-largest energy exporter in sub-Saharan Africa. But the first wave of revenues seemed to disappear—the people of Equatorial Guinea remained as poor, ill-housed, uneducated, and unhealthy as ever. Rather than putting the money into a transparent government account and using the proceeds for social services, Obiang hoarded it in accounts he personally controlled at Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C. An investigation by the SEC led to millions of dollars in money-laundering fines against Riggs, but Obiang was not charged. In fact, things only got sweeter. In 2006, he was invited to Washington and met Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who called him a “good friend.”

It’s no secret why Rice is BFF with Obiang—he controls oil that Washington wants access to. The stance is indefensible even on pragmatic grounds. King Abdullah is a “good friend,” too, but the Saudi monarch controls more than 260 billion barrels of oil; the morals-for-oil transaction is plausible if it nets us a lot of gas, albeit at $4 a gallon. Obiang controls 1.1 billion barrels of oil—a global pittance. We shouldn’t bow to him, and we don’t even need to. I learned that at the airport.

The minister was shouting and began to slap my arms as I moved, too slowly for his satisfaction, to unpack my bag. He was serious about taking me downtown. To hold him off, I told him the U.S. government would be angry if I were to be arrested. I was counting on the insecurity of Obiang’s regime. There had just been a bizarre and failed coup plot involving Mark Thatcher, the buffoonish son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. I had noticed, while attending a presidential speech and parade, that Obiang’s key bodyguards were Moroccan mercenaries rather than compatriots, whom he apparently could not trust. Although U.S. power is diminished by the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, it remains fearsome to an autocrat whose air force consists of less than a dozen planes apparently piloted by Eastern Europeans. So, my bluff succeeded. The minister ceased harassing me.

For the usual and shameful reasons, the White House does not use its clout to condemn Obiang as it condemns Mugabe—there has not been a word of censure from Washington about Obiang’s 99-for-100 triumph in May’s elections. Yet that’s only part of the reason Americans hear little about him. There isn’t a gag order on America’s media, after all. There is, however, a famous dictator trying to crush a peaceful uprising in a far larger country with a historical narrative that we’re familiar with and fascinated by—in a dramatic fashion, Zimbabwe has gone from white rule to independence to destitution. Mugabe’s government admits to an inflation rate of 150,000 percent, but that’s the optimistic view, because unofficial estimates are a calculator-busting 1 million percent. This drama casts an unfortunate spell, because Obiang is not just a worse tyrant, he is a better story. The U.S. government is not propping up Mugabe, but with billions invested by American companies in Equatorial Guinea, it is propping up Obiang. The Equatorial Guinean minister who owns the building that houses the U.S. Embassy in Malabo has even been accused of torture by human rights organizations. Instead of seeking an indictment against the man, the U.S. government is putting rent money in his pocket. (A lot of rent money, actually—$17,500 a month.)

You haven’t heard that before? The tragedy is that you might not hear of it again.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.