By Joseph Kraus, Policy Manager for Transparency and Accountability at ONE

Cross posted from Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa


Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the president of Equatorial Guinea for the last 33 years, stated in a recent interview that people in Equatorial Guinea “do not know what poverty is.” My friend and colleague, Marcial Abaga Barril, one of the country’s most vocal human rights and good governance activists, begs to differ.

Marcial lives in a dilapidated home in Fiston – one of the slums that surround the capital, Malabo. Most of the capital’s residents live in similar slums.

Each of Marcia’s four children possesses the distended belly symptomatic of poor sanitation and health services. Their house is just one of many windowless, wood and tin structures that sit among trash-filled streets of Fiston. And yet, Fiston is bordered by a large, recently constructed supermarket and several impressive homes that were purportedly built for government officials – a poignant illustration of the acute inequality that exists in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea.

At every turn, there are children filling jerry cans with water drawn from a polluted stream, which lies just blocks from a gleaming new presidential palace – one of many scattered across the country.

Marcial’s activism has seen him sit on high-level panels at numerous international conferences, but it has also made him a permanent target for government harassment. He proudly displays official government documents that – without explanation – ensured that he was dismissed from a job with an international organization. Blacklisted by the government, he cannot be hired by any private employers in the nation. His mother repeatedly warned him to stop criticizing the government, lest he “get in trouble.”

But he did not listen and in November 2011, while publicly campaigning against government-promoted constitutional changes, Marcial was illegally detained. He was released, without charge, three days later, following an international outcry and diplomatic pressure on his behalf. Now, when asked, Marcial says he lives in a “permanent state of temporary release from custody.”

He also lives in Africa’s richest country per capita – with enough oil wealth to improve everyone’s lives. But like so many others he has no job, no running water or electricity in his wooden shack, and he cannot provide adequate healthcare, education, and food for his growing family.

The truth is that Marcial and the majority of people in Equatorial Guinea know all about poverty and inequality. They struggle to survive it every day.

Perhaps President Obiang was talking about his family and cronies when he said there is no poverty in Equatorial Guinea. Or maybe he has not looked out of the windows of his presidential palaces in a long, long time.