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Poverty rife in Africa’s “Kuwait”

Two children wait at a public fountain in Malabo for water to arrive. UN estimates less than half of the population has access to clean drinking water.
(Rodrigo A. Nguema/IRIN)

Equatorial Guinea is one of the world’s top 30 oil producers, according to its Ministry of Mines, but corruption watchdog group Global Witness says most in the country still live in poverty.

Global Witness US-based policy advisor, Sasha Lezhnev, told IRIN: “Equatorial Guinea is the dictatorship that no one talks about. The government earns billions in oil every year, yet 60 percent of its population lives on less than US$1 a day.”

Lezhnev said the government has not disclosed the locations of where it keeps more than $2 billion in national revenue in private banks abroad. “This raises serious questions as to the government’s commitment to transparency,” said Lezhnev.

According to the Bank of Central African States, Guinea sold its 1.8 billion barrels of oil in 2007 for US$4.3 billion, which formed about 90 percent of the country’s economy.

Exxon Mobil Corporation made one of the first major oil discoveries off the coast of Bioko island, home to the capital Malabo, in 1992, and it now accounts for some 75 percent of the country’s oil production.

Equatorial Guinea had one of the 60 highest per capita incomes worldwide in 2007, about US$20,000, according to the World Bank.

Photo: Rodrigo A. Nguema/IRIN
National Petroleum Company, a symbol of the islands' oil wealth, constructed with Chinese funds

But per capita income estimates vary widely based on the population count, which international agencies accused the government of manipulating in 2001 for election purposes. The count swings from 600,000 residents to over one million. Either way, this country’s income is still at least 10 times that of its sub-Saharan neighbours.

Access to jobs restricted

But many residents say it takes ruling party loyalty in Africa’s “Kuwait”, as some locals refer to the oil-rich islands, in order to benefit from oil production. “To be able to work with the oil companies,” said Ramon Riloha, “you have to present a membership card with the [presidential ruling] Democratic Party of Guinea. I haven’t been working since the party discovered in 2003 that I was not a member.”Antonio Otogo told IRIN he has not found work in 18 years. “I used to work as a civil servant. With multiparty elections in 1991, I joined the Party of Progress [opposition party legalised in 1997]. Since then, I have not been able to find a job, even in the private sector. I am treated as an enemy of the country.”

No photos in slums

The UN Children’s Fund estimates less than half the population has access to clean drinking water, and 20 percent of children die before reaching five. The average cost of a medical consultation is about US$60, while the monthly government minimum wage is US$186.

“Oil has only made us poorer,” said Antonio Buecheku, a farmer on Bioko island. “Look where we live, in shacks with no water or electricity,” said neighbour Juan Mba, a civil servant, who lives in the Malabo slum of New Building. “Before oil came along, we were doing fine without the ‘nouveaux riches’ taunting us with their new-found wealth.”

Photo: Rodrigo A. Nguema/IRIN
One of Malabo's slums, where photograph is off-limits for international journalists without government accreditation

International journalists are forbidden from taking pictures in the hundreds of slum areas in and around the capital without special government-issued accreditation. Shantytown residents have attacked local journalists trying to take pictures, destroying their equipment. “People living in misery do not want their photographs taken,” said one local journalist.

UN country director Liman Kiari Tinguiri told IRIN in July 2008 “massive,16 percent economic growth in the last 15 years” had done little to ease island poverty: “The country is still classified among the least advanced countries… with one of the world’s highest child mortality rates [206 out of 1,000]. In terms of human development, there is still a lot of progress to be made.”


A government economist who requested anonymity told IRIN the country suffers from the economic phenomenon of Dutch disease, in which increased oil revenue is linked with a rise in corruption and a decline in the manufacturing sector.

In the 2008 Transparency International corruption index, Equatorial Guinea had the eighth most corrupt image worldwide.

“The country shows symptoms of the syndrome. The management and distribution of the oil income is the main problem,” said the economist, who went on to predict “a system of plundering and monopolising of resources, the spread of corruption… the phenomenon of unnecessary public improvements, and, eventually, conditions that can lead to political stability and even armed conflict.”

But the Ministry of Environment’s vice minister, Carlos Nsue, dismissed doomsday predictions of oil wealth gone awry: “As with all countries around the world, fighting corruption is not easy. For years, we have worked with the World Bank to adhere to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative to improve our country’s credibility with bilateral and multilateral donors.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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