In a continent infamous for repressive dictatorships, Equatorial Guinea is among the very worst. Its president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, has been in power for 34 years, making him Africa’s longest serving dictator. The country is enormously wealthy, thanks to its vast oil reserves, but that wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite.
Most Equatorial Guineans remain in crushing poverty, with little or no access to decent healthcare or education. Opposition to the status quo, meanwhile, is virtually non-existent: torture and intimidation of the government’s critics is common place, while any attempts to organize outside official government channels are crushed.
Tutu Alicante, executive director of EG Justice, is that rarest of things: an Equatorial Guinean willing to publicly oppose his government. For his troubles, he has lived in exile since the age of 19 – nervous of what will happen to him and his family should he ever return. His organization fights for democracy and against the human rights abuses of the Obiang regime – although most of the time, Alicante struggles to keep Equatorial Guinea on the international agenda.
The Daily Maverick chatted to Alicante in a coffee shop in Melville. He’s in South Africa at the invitation of the Institute for Security Studies, where he will speak at a seminar on Friday, and to brief international NGOs on the dire situation in his country.
Daily Maverick: Yours is an unusual career choice. How and why did you get involved in the struggle for human rights in Equatorial Guinea?
Tutu Alicante: [Growing up in EG], I had witnessed a lot of things. Living in the capital city, very close to the state apparatus, very close to the notorious Black Beach prison, and very close to the presidency. And I witnessed many people being taken in military cars, and my own family, my father, being detained at night. Form a very early age I realized I wanted to be involved in social justice. Initially I was at a seminary and I was kicked out for asking to many questions…
I quickly realized what I needed to learn was the law. I needed to learn how laws can change a society, because we could witness quickly how oil was changing the whole politics and economics of the country. All of sudden this country that was completely isolated was now relevant to any major western country because of the oil and gas. But the oppression was still there, the corruption was multiplying by the day as more money was coming in. Then I decided to go to law school [in the USA] and learn the law, and one thing led to another.
DM: It can’t be easy to oppose Obiang’s government from thousands of miles away.
TA: It is a challenge. To fight for democracy, for human rights, for civic engagement, it’s better to be in the lion’s den. However, I do find myself in a situation where I am in a privileged spot. The US is critical to what’s happening in my country, all the oil companies are US companies. The US is investing upwards of $5 billion a year in EG through the oil companies. Being in the US allows me to raise awareness among US policy makers, US journalists, US citizens, about the impact they are having in EG. It allows me to be a bridge between people in EG suffering the brunt of what these companies are doing there.
DM: Do any organisations like EG Justice exist within Equatorial Guinea?
TA: There is not a single human rights organisation or anti-corruption organisation in the country. The law that allows NGOs to be established does not contemplate working on these issues. If you were to try and register one, your paperwork would lie in the ministry of interior forever. You wouldn’t get authorized to exist.
Inside the country you can register NGOs to do children’s education work, women’s empowerment work, anything the government perceives as non-threatening. Anything involving democracy or human rights will get you beaten or harassed.
DM: Do you think the average Equatorial Guinean wants a change in government?
TA: Most Equatorial Guineans are fed up with the way things are going. You have a country which is on paper the richest country on the continent on a per capita basis, on a par with many European nations. At the same tie you have one of the highest income and standard of living disparities. The income per capita is one which should allow people to have the same access to healthcare etc. as most European nations. Then you look at the rates of access to water, access to adequate healthcare, access to education, infant mortality, maternal mortality, and you see that we are basically where the DRC is, where Haiti is. The gap between the income and the access to basic needs and rights is astronomical.
DM: Although there is an official opposition party, its influence is negligible – it only has one seat in each of the two houses of parliament, and is almost entirely reliant on state funding for campaigning. Civil society too is neutered. Are there any other organisations or institutions – perhaps religious, cultural or labour – that could instigate change?
TA: It’s a very small country. Any group that the government perceives as sufficiently powerful is immediately co-opted. Effectively what the government has created is a situation where there is no state entity. What exists as the main entity is the ruling political party. Everything else is either co-opted into that, or if it’s not is completely undermined. So churches, for instance, which in many other places have provided an avenue for people to gather and discuss issues and organise, are completely co-opted by the government. There are no unions or labour organisations. So you don’t have spaces for citizens to come together and organise, or even assemble – any meeting you want to hold in EG with more than five people, you have to have a permit from the govt.
DM: So where will change come from?
TA: Change must come from a few different places. One is young people, we have to find creative ways of organising them. In Egypt for example, social networks played a key role in getting people to the street at the right moment, getting messages out, not just to people in the country but outside the country. So finding creative ways of organizing people who still have very limited access to internet but still have a cellphone is something we are looking at. How do we get to these young people inside the country? There are a growing number of young people using Facebook and other forums to discuss issues that inside the country you cannot discuss, people are starting internet-based radios.
Another avenue is really supporting the decrepit political opposition group that exists. The US for instance has a long history and tradition of supporting political parties, in places like Cuba, Venezuela. EG needs that. EG needs [organisations like] the National Institute for Democracy and International Republican Institute to find creative ways of working with the opposition inside…if you are going to continue to do business with Obiang, you should be able to make that contingent on having a radio or something that allows for freedom of expression inside the country.
Then we have African institutions, such as the AU. The AU needs to be more serious about democracy, about human right, about good governance. You cannot continue to have the AU sending observer missions to Equatorial Guinea and coming out and issuing a positive report on the type of elections that take place.
DM: Do you still have family in Equatorial Guinea? How does your work impact on them?
TA: I still have my family there. Most certainly my work impacts them. I cannot travel to EG because of the work that I’m doing. My father died about three weeks ago, I couldn’t travel to his funeral. I’m the first son of my family, I should have been there doing the ceremony. My father was detained initially in 2005, but since then they haven’t gone after [my family]. I suspect the government knows that I am in the US and I have the means to make a lot of noise should they arrest my family. But nevertheless the fact that people like myself that do this type of work cannot travel freely, or our families cannot talk freely on the phone when they talk to us, definitely has an impact.
I try not to make this a personal issue. Without a doubt its painful when you have a family member in hospital that you know is going to die and there’s nothing you can do. But I try to see it as the type of sacrifices you have to do when you fight for freedom, for democracy in your country. I am not alone or peculiar in this sense – there are many of us in exile that would love to be in EG helping to develop the country , but we know that we are seen as enemies of the state…I know what would happen to me should I go back.
DM: What would happen?
TA: I wouldn’t come back alive from Equatorial Guinea. I wouldn’t come back alive. DM
Photo: Tutu Alicante (Simon Allison)
Speaking Kurdish in Turkey was illegal until the 1990s.