Friday, January 27, 2012



Photo/FILE As Africa enjoys the soccer fest in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, critics are questioning the rationale of impoverished countries spending billions of shillings on fleeting fiestas.  
Posted  Friday, January 27  2012 at  00:00
The Africa Cup of Nations kicked off last week in Equatorial Guinea, one of the smallest countries in a continent that’s never short of surprises. Teodorin Obiang, the playboy son of the country’s president, promised the national team Sh87 million for a win against Libya — in the opening match alone — in a soccer fanfare that belies deeper problems that ought to be red-carded.
Equatorial Guinea is co-hosting the tournament’s 28th edition with Gabon, which has forked $500, 000 million towards the biennial soccer fiesta.
Located in the western coast of Africa, Equatorial Guinea borders Cameroon and Gabon. It is the least ranked country in the Nations Cup at position 151 worldwide, and sits calmly behind war-torn Yemen and Samoa in the January 2012 Fifa rankings.
Obiang, the Minister for Agriculture and Forestry, is famous for all the wrong reasons. He acquired a mansion in Malibu, a Gulfstream jet and Michael Jackson’s white, crystal-covered glove last year.
That didn’t have him turning his pockets inside out. Instead, he promised a further $20,000 (Sh1.7 million) for every goal scored by the Nzalang Nacional (National Lightening), as the national team is christened.
And Spanish-born Equato-Guinean midfielder Javier-Angel Balboa did not disappoint home fans when he slotted an 87th minute shot into the top corner of the goalpost, past Libyan goalie Samir Abboud, inside the 35,000-seater Bata Stadium in Bata, the former capital city.
The National Lightening won its debut match against Libya with the solo goal and pocketed the $1,020,000.
“They use money, I use mentality,” Libya’s Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta sneered before the game. A memorable quote this one. One, for its refreshing grammar. Two, for its echo of Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saadi, who in a way was the face of Italian football when money was not a problem.
Anti-poverty activists have protested Obiang’s Sh87 million offer in a country which, for eons, was a malaria-infested backwater teeming with gorillas (the mascot of the tournament), giant frogs, green mamba snakes and a population that lived on less than a dollar a day.
That was before massive oil reserves were discovered off its Atlantic shores in 1995, whereupon the former Spanish colony ceased being the “armpit of Africa”.
Petrodollars from the production of 181,400 barrels a day, natural gas and other hydrocarbons account for more than 81 per cent of the government’s $6.74 billion budget, according to the CIA World Fact Book.
That windfall has pushed the average annual economic growth rate to 41 per cent, which, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is one of the fastest anywhere in the world.
Adjusted for purchasing power, Equatorial Guinea has Africa’s — and one of the world’s — highest per capita incomes, which rose from $590 (Sh50,000) in 1998 to $50,240 (Sh4 million) by 2005.
But, unfortunately, notes the IMF country report, “this wealth has not even led to a measurable improvement in living conditions”. Human Rights Watch says “the dictatorship of President Teondoro Obiang Nguema has used an oil boom to entrench and enrich itself further at the expense of the country’s people”, and that the country is “locked in a harsh reality of repression and grinding poverty”.
Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s third largest producer of oil after Nigerian and Angola, is ranked at the tail end of the United Nation’s Human Development Index (HDI), which, in its assessment, notes that less than half of the population has access to clean drinking water, and that 20 per cent of children die before the age of five.
Unicef lists life expectancy here at 51 years.
While unemployment in the country of 676,000 people, according to 2009 estimates, stands at 22 per cent, the oil industry only employs slightly over 10,000 people, mostly expatriates, and only a mere 1.23 per cent of the GDP is spent on health services, notes Brendan McSherry in The Political Economy of Oil in Equatorial Guinea.
The “resource curse” is such that oil money is spent on misguided projects. Like the construction of a new capital city, Malabo 2, instead of roads connecting villages, new schools or new hospitals.
Corruption watchdog Transparency International slots the country, where oil revenues are a “state secret”, in the top 10 list of most corrupt states in its 2010 Index starring Somalia, Burma and Afghanistan as the medal champs.
Carmelo Modu, the marketing director for the 2012 Cup of Nations, told Associated Press that Equatorial Guinea is “a whole country under construction”, and that the Cup of Nations will “show the word what we are trying to do”.
Teodorin Obiang’s father, the gaunt 68-year-old President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, was in the stadium during the opening ceremony. The Chairman of the African Union is one of Africa’s longest serving heads of state, having ascended to the presidency in a bloody ‘Coup of Freedom’ in 1979 against President Francisco Macias Nguema, his uncle.
‘Papa Macias’, a bhang smoker, had led the country since it gained independence in 1968. But his autocratic rule was punctuated by megalomaniacal sideshows: He had the governor of the central bank killed before he carted what was left in the public coffers to his pad in his rural village, and almost a third of the country was exiled and 65,000 people murdered, according to the Time magazine issue of August, 1979.
But brutality was never going to thwart the dictator’s appointment with destiny. A coup led by Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who was a lieutenant colonel and director of the Black Beach Prison, was imminent.
President Macias, Leader of Steel, The Sole Miracle of Equatorial Guinea, The Grand Master of Education, Science and Culture and President for Life was abandoned by the army, captured in a forest, imprisoned, tried in a military tribunal and executed.
But President Obiang Nguema, the “liberator”, did not bring democracy and freedom to Equato-Guineans. Today, he has one of the world’s worst human rights records, according to Human Rights Watch.
Petrodollars have helped him consolidate his criminal regime, he condones toxic waste dumping, drug trafficking, pirate fishing, arms and aircraft smuggling and forced child labour, writes Robert Klitgaard in Tropical Gangsters.
Klitgaard worked for the World Bank in Equatorial Guinea, where opposition politicians are exiled and dissenters jailed at the torture hellhole that is the notorious Black Beach Prison in Malabo, the current capital city of 150,000 people, according to 2009 estimates.
President Nguema’s government teems with blood relations: the head honcho of the oil business is Gabrial, Nguema’s brother; the inspector general of the Armed forces is his cousin; while his Esangui clan chokes various posts in the civil service.
In 2004, Sir Mark Thatcher, son of former British Premier Margaret Thatcher, wired $285,000 — according to South African police — to mercenaries to help topple and replace President Nguema with opposition leader Severo Moto, who is exiled in Spain.
The coup was thwarted by soldiers loyal to President Nguema. South African Mercenary leader Nick du Toit, who had been promised millions of oil money and concessions if the coup succeeded, is serving 34 years in Black Beach Prison.
Thatcher pleaded guilty and was handed a five-year suspended sentence and fined $560,000 by a South African court in exchange for his confession that saw him escape extradition to Equatorial Guinea.
So why are such countries allowed to spend millions of public money to host the Nations Cup?
Well, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) has, in its pitch-hardened wisdom, a policy of encouraging “new” countries to host the Africa Cup of Nations as a way of forcing their governments to build sports infrastructure whose budgets “could otherwise not have been found”.
CAF uses the tournament as an investment tool, hoping new roads, hotels, airports and media exposure will drive tourism and business, long after the final whistle.
And with each new edition, the Cup of Nations has become an important economic glove in the hand of infrastructure development in host nations.
But EG Justice, an independent voice of reform in Equatorial Guinea, has warned that “the government hopes the recently completed luxury hotels, golf resorts and shiny monuments will disguise the grinding poverty that dominates the lives of most people in the oil-rich nation. They must not be allowed to get away with this deception”.
And as Equatorial Guinea shows off its oil wealth amidst festering poverty, Gabon, the co-host, fares slightly better.
Oil was discovered there in the early 1970s, relegating dependency on timber and manganese. Oil accounts for 50 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product that sees Gabon enjoy a per capita income that is four times that of most sub-Saharan countries, according to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
But 70 per cent of the citizens remain dirt-poor due to high-income inequalities and financial mismanagement that has seen the richest 20 per cent receive over 90 per cent of the income, says UNDP.
That stain aside, and since gaining independence from France in 1960, Gabon has had two presidents, a pointer to its political stability, besides boasting some of the best medical facilities in West Africa: About 90 per cent of the 1.5 million people — the lowest population density in Sub-Saharan Africa — had access to healthcare (an estimated 29 doctors per 100,000) by 2004, says UNDP.
Gabon, slotted 77th in the Fifa ranking, is parading The Panthers, the national team that thrashed Niger 2-0 in their opener at the new 40,000-seater d’Angondje Stadium, which was built with the help of the Chinese government and will host the finals.