Who’s Africa’s worst dictator?

2008-07-04 00:00

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 criticism by Western governments, everyone knows that Zimbabwe’s leader is trying to hang on to power by crushing Morgan Tsvangirai, who would have rolled 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 is not Africa’s worst. That prize arguably goes to Teodoro Obiang, ruler of Equatorial Guinea, whose life seems a parody of the dictator genre. Years of apprenticeship in a genocidal regime led by a crazy uncle? Check. A coup against the murderous uncle? Check. Execution of deposed uncle by firing squad? Check. Proclamation of self as the liberator of the nation? Check.

Govern for decades in a way that gets 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 and was evacuated. Not long after, offshore oil was discovered, but the first wave of revenues — about $700 million — was transferred into secret accounts under Obiang’s personal control.

In May, 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”.

Equatorial Guinea is a small country with fewer than a million people, its economy is expanding in an oil boom, and Obiang’s “victory” did not require the 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 unrest is invisible.

Since oil was found in the Gulf of Guinea, ExxonMobil, Marathon Oil, Chevron and other firms have invested more than $10 billion to extract it, 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.

Instead, Obiang hoarded the money in accounts he personally controlled at Riggs Bank in Washington, DC.

An investigation by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency 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”.

The White House does not use its clout to condemn Obiang as it condemns Mugabe — there has been no censure from Washington about Obiang’s 99-for-100 election triumph. The U.S.

government is not propping up Mugabe, but with billions invested by American companies in Equatorial Guinea, it is propping up Obiang.

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