Politics

Zuma rolls out red carpet for Africa’s newest longest-serving dictator

By Simon Allison 24 October 2011

South Africa pulled out all the stops to welcome President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea on a full state visit, which achieved little in the way of concrete agreements, but did raise some questions (not addressed in the press conference, naturally) about just how close we want to be to one of Africa’s most notorious leaders. By SIMON ALLISON.

“My dear brother,” Zuma called visiting Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, one the longest serving presidents in Africa and a man to whom the traditional stereotypes around African leadership apply in spades. Notoriously corrupt and venal, he runs a country where opposition and a free press are suppressed – often violently – his word is law and where the proceeds of the not insignificant oil wealth buried offshore find their way into swollen private bank accounts rather than the country’s stretched coffers.

Obiang is grooming his son for power, and young Teodorin is the archetype of the entitled playboy. In the last month alone investigating authorities in France and the US have impounded 11 supercars belonging to him, as well as a multimillion-dollar Malibu home.

Obiang was in South Africa for his first official state visit here, and was welcomed at the Union Buildings on Friday with full honours – a marching band, an inspection of the troops and a 21-gun salute, which if you haven’t heard one before is ear-shatteringly loud, and also rather disconcerting; the sight of those long artillery gun barrels pointed at the neat streets of Pretoria in the valley below are eerily reminiscent of photographs from the siege of Sarajevo.

Most of the South African cabinet turned out to greet Obiang, and – like the impatient and increasingly sweaty press corps – spent nearly an hour in the summer sunshine waiting for Obiang’s motorcade to turn up, an exercise in protocol which does not immediately suggest itself as the most efficient use of their time. (Particularly irksome was the presence of Tokyo Sexwale, who even made it to the pro-forma press conference some five hours later; did our housing minister really think that paying lip service to one of Africa’s worst leaders was more important than tackling the looming crisis over housing in Alexandra?)

The press conference, when it finally came, revealed little about the state of relations between South Africa and Equatorial Guinea, which are slightly sensitive after revelations this week that South Africa under Mbeki tacitly condoned a coup attempt against Obiang in 2004. There were pledges to cooperate, pledges to improve relations, pledges to avoid making more meaningless pledges. Obiang emphasised this latter point: “It is true we have the bad habit of signing agreements without implementing them,” he said, stressing that this needs to change. Obiang wants South Africa and Equatorial Guinea to become a “model of South-South cooperation,” while Zuma promised both South Africa’s public and private sectors will engage with Equatorial Guinea, and that we’d help them as they prepare to co-host with Gabon the African Cup of Nations in 2012 (an initiative which thanks to Bafana Bafana’s inability to read a rulebook will be the full extent of South Africa’s involvement in that tournament). Nothing, however, was signed in public, suggesting these agreements might be plagued by that same old bad habit.

But no one present – one suspects not even Zuma – was that interested in Equatorial Guinea, which is a tiny country with a tiny economy and with little if any strategic import other than oil. But Obiang is not just leader of Equatorial Guinea. This year, he is also chairman of the African Union, and in this capacity is qualified to clarify the AU’s position on the week’s biggest story: Libya and the death of Muammar Gaddafi, whose ruling style was not all that far removed from Obiang’s. “It was expected to occur, the demise of Colonel Gaddafi,” said Obiang through his translator, who has a disturbing habit of referring to even the most democratic of governments as a “regime”, a translation error perhaps indicative of the Equatorial Guinean world view. But Gaddafi’s death changes nothing: “The African Union has actually issued a road map, and we expect this will be followed very closely…We are looking forward to a situation where the African Union will play a role.”

Obiang also offered a spirited defense of the AU’s rather passive role in Libya so far, which has come under severe criticism. “The African Union as a body do[sic] not in anway[sic] find itself in a capacity to engage in war. We do not have the capacity to go into other countries and enforce ourselves…The African Union is a body that has its hands tied down completely.” It’s a valid point. Obiang is arguing that without the resources, both financial and military, which organisations like Nato can use to support their diplomacy, the AU is effectively hamstrung, and the only diplomatic options available to it are slow-moving solutions involving plenty of dialogue, negotiations and inclusivity. Of course, this is not really an excuse for why the African Union took so long to recognise Libya’s National Transitional Council, but it’s about as close as we’re going to get.

In the end, the two leaders vacated their lecterns, having taken questions from only the friendly SABC and travelling Equatorial Guinean delegation. But the real question, for South Africa at least, is how much Zuma means it when he calls someone like Obiang his “dear brother” – is it a distasteful diplomatic necessity, or is Zuma genuinely close with a person whose dictatorial one-person rule stands against almost everything in the South African constitution? DM



Read more:

  • The strange and evil world of Equatorial Guinea, in The Guardian;
  • Obiang visit ‘further blow’ to SA’s battered rights reputation, in Business Day; and
  • SA backed coup plot – Mann, on IOL.

Photo: Teodoro Obiang. Reuters.

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