Starting April 1st, 2008, Lufthansa offers 295 seats, three times a week, in a superb Airbus for anyone wanting to travel from Frankfurt to Malabo, Equatorial Guinea’s capital city. It now seems incredible that in the 90’s only Iberia flew to Malabo, from Madrid on Sunday morning, and back the same evening with a group of civil servants, a bunch of nuns and priests plus some Equatorial Guinea nationals.
This new connection between Equatorial Guinea and the rest of the world beyond its closest African neighbors, joins those of Air France, Swiss International Air Lines, Royal Air Maroc, KLM, Spainair, Sonair, Jet Air and some others. Even flights from unspecified airports in Europe with airlines which are not IATA members – although they advertise as such- can be found on the Internet.
The airlines tell the public this intense activity is due to growing business opportunities and changes taking place in the African country: “Blessed by a growing economy in recent years, the country maintains numerous international trade relations, principally in the energy sector.” (http://www.lufthansa.com/online/portal/lh/uk/info_and_services/local_box?l=en&nodeid=2088346&cid=1000243#ancN65662)
Three men and a helicopter
However, seasoned travellers do not agree on this point. Simon Mann, a British mercenary once told the UK‘s television Channel 4 that “things were very bad” in Equatorial Guinea and that “regime change was badly needed”. He added that “the regime was stumbling, the State was sinking” (http://www.asodegue.org/marzo1208.htm).
Mann is the model of the English gentleman. He studied in Eton, the world’s most elitist school, cradle of renowned travellers since its foundation in 1440. After graduating he spent the next 30 years travelling the world together with other gunmen, shooting to order or off his own bat in order to make money. His last trip for that purpose, began in South Africa in 2004 and has landed him in Malabo’s Black Beach jail, where he has just been imprisoned after being jailed for a time in Zimbabwe.
Many people learn at school that travelling is the best way to learn. Mann has certainly changed his opinions. A mere week at his Black Beach prison cell has led him to abandon his former negative image of Equatorial Guinea and to declare the country “has experienced an incredible change in four years”.
On the same day in Madrid, where he lives as a Geneva Convention refugee, Severo Moto, president of Equatorial Guinea’s government in exile, said the opposite : “I am coming back home!” in order to bring freedom and democracy to the country. (http://www.guinea-ecuatorial.org/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=704)
Moto’s travelling experience is the opposite of Mann’s. The more he travels the world the further he gets from Equatorial Guinea. Seeking all kinds of support for his political return home, he has been to many different places. But none of them has taken him even half way to his apparent destination. What is worse, he has come close to losing both his life and his refugee status in Spain.
Mann and Moto are not alone in their plight. Since 2004, after a life of travel for pleasure, one of their main supporters, Mark Thatcher, son of former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, has some difficulty leaving Britain. Many countries refuse to grant him a visa precisely for his past involvement in adventures that were too big for him. How come his partners failed to notice that this true wet blanket has failed in virtually all the sports, business and financial projects he has undertaken?
Mann now complains that Moto and Ely Calil, another financial backer, cheated him. Thatcher says he thought the helicopter he rented for their botched plan, was meant to serve as an ambulance. Moto says he knows nothing at all about Mann’s coup d’état. Calil, who made his fortune in the oil business, has left his fancy residence in London’s Chelsea. His current whereabouts are unknown.
Notional coups, notional opposition
The only clear thing emerging from this Marx Brothers remake is the advisability of choosing one’s travel companions for a coup d’etat with care. Opposition leaders inside the country know this all too well. That means cultivating relations with the most important foreign centres of political power. In other words: travelling from Malabo to the United States and European Union capitals.
Unfortunately, despite frequent invitations for these leaders to visit powerful countries with leverage over Equatorial Guinea, their visits have not borne fruit. On the eve of legislative elections due next May in Equatorial Guinea, Convergencia Para la Democracia Social (CPDS), an opposition party founded underground in 1990, today has two representatives in the national congress. The remaining 98 seats are held by supporters of Teodoro Obiang, President without a break since 1979.
One might say that the important thing is not the number of trips, but their quality. Up until now, it seems that CPDS secretary general, Placido Mico, has yet to learn what Moto knows: world governments are far more interested in Equatorial Guinea’a oil than in its people’s human rights. All those foreign trips have not taught Mico what Obiang and any other dictator who leans on US friendship knows: so long as they obey imperial policies, they will stay in power, unless their own people bring them down.
Mico never tires of declaring in every city he visits that CPDS “is a political party aiming to introduce changes in Equatorial Guinea once it gets power, which it will acquire by democratic means. For this, it works peacefully for the establishment of a democratic regime in Equatorial Guinea”. It may seem incredible, but he adds that he is confident that the United States government may change its current policies towards Equatorial Guinea (http://cpds-gq.org/laverdad56/opinion3.html).
This and similar statements are sweet music to Obiang and the world leaders who support him. So they are more than happy to pay for Mico’s air tickets and travel expenses. The Equatorial Guinea opposition leader gives them no trouble and above all guarantees that their corporations increasing investments and business in this small oil-rich African country are safe. Furthermore, this heavenly status quo means they can meet with Mico openly. So in the unlikely event that domestic public opinion questions Equatorial Guinea‘s lack of democracy, they can say they are doing their share to support it.
Tyranny – good for business
No wonder more and more airlines are offering new connections to Malabo. International entrepeneurs have realised, as politicians have, that their businesses are not in peril with the current government or any other likely to succeed it. Such security does not apply to Equatorial Guinea‘s people, whose human rights are violated on a daily basis. It seems corporation CEOs do not get news about Obiang’s policemen chasing after opposition leaders and sometimes torturing them to death. They also seem not to know that business is the preserve of the elite, that democracy is just a dream for the majority of the population either at home or in exile. (http://thereport.amnesty.org/eng/Regions/Africa/Equatorial-Guinea)
One learned observer of Equatorial Guinea who, oddly enough, does not travel there, explained last March 17 why businessmen choose this country for their activities:
“We have heard many times during the last years that Equatorial Guinea is changing. The truth is that real development has not taken place. What exists is an enormous development of Obiang’s entourage’s enterprises. These have made them incredibly rich while the majority of the population remains poor.” (http://www.asodegue.org/marzo1708.htm)
He adds: “news coming from different parts of the country speak of little enthusiasm amongst the people entitled to register for the elections. They are tired of the same people governing all the time, no matter who the citizens vote for. Some reports also inform of irregularities.” (http://www.asodegue.org/febrero01081.htm)
Travel – the great educator
In the meantime Obiang himself and his family also travel to Europe and the United States. On arrival he is greeted with flattery. In the April 12, 2006 press conference by United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, she said: “thank you very much for your presence here. You are a good friend and we welcome you.” (http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2006/64434.htm)
From time to time Obiang has to listen to “recommendations” and “suggestions” about governance and human rights on his trips abroad, but his bank accounts and properties keep on growing anyway. Neither do the admonitions affect the income of Western companies operating in Equatorial Guinea.
When criticism cuts him to the quick, he fights back and speaks his mind. He is right. Why the half-hearted criticism at the same time as they openly flatter him? This helps explain Obiang’s growing interest in China : a country he has visited five times in the last few years. (http://www.embajadachina.org.mx/esp/xw/t217927.htm)
Obiang’s trips to Europe and the United States, generate new ones in their turn, from Western Prime Ministers and Foreign Affairs Ministers, from other high government officials and from big corporation CEOs. If two sandals and an ass were all it took Herodotus to write impressive reports of the political and social events he witnessed in his travels, what will these people write from their first class seats in an Airbus A330-300, equipped with "two meter long beds, wine cellar, 5-star chef, musical classics and video”? (www.lufthansa.com)
Back home, after a two or three day visit to Equatorial Guinea, they declare the country has made important steps towards democracy, that the political situation has vastly improved, and last but not least, praise the outstanding environment for foreign investment. That is why people say travel broadens the mind. Maybe when Western airlines start giving seats to the thousands of people from Equatorial Guinea who have never flown with them, those people too will at last see the wonders of Equatorial Guinea so fulsomely described by foreign politicians and businessmen.
Moral: increase international air connections with Equatorial Guinea.
Agustín Velloso is Professor of Education Sciences at the National Univeristy of Education in Madrid. His English version of this article was revised by toni solo.