Who's Africa's Worst Dictator?
Hint: It's probably not Robert Mugabe.
To understand what happened next, and to understand a crucial reason why we hear little about Obiang, you need to know that since oil was found in the country's waters in the Gulf of Guinea, ExxonMobil, Marathon Oil, Chevron, and other firms have invested more than $10 billion to extract the treasure, transforming Equatorial Guinea into the third-largest energy exporter in sub-Saharan Africa. But the first wave of revenues seemed to disappear—the people of Equatorial Guinea remained as poor, ill-housed, uneducated, and unhealthy as ever. Rather than putting the money into a transparent government account and using the proceeds for social services, Obiang hoarded it in accounts he personally controlled at Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C. An investigation by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency led to millions of dollars in money-laundering fines against Riggs, but Obiang was not charged. * In fact, things only got sweeter. In 2006, he was invited to Washington and met Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who called him a "good friend."
It's no secret why Rice is BFF with Obiang—he controls oil that Washington wants access to. The stance is indefensible even on pragmatic grounds. King Abdullah is a "good friend," too, but the Saudi monarch controls more than 260 billion barrels of oil; the morals-for-oil transaction is plausible if it nets us a lot of gas, albeit at $4 a gallon. Obiang controls 1.1 billion barrels of oil—a global pittance. We shouldn't bow to him, and we don't even need to. I learned that at the airport.
The minister was shouting and began to slap my arms as I moved, too slowly for his satisfaction, to unpack my bag. He was serious about taking me downtown. To hold him off, I told him the U.S. government would be angry if I were to be arrested. I was counting on the insecurity of Obiang's regime. There had just been a bizarre and failed coup plot involving Mark Thatcher, the buffoonish son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. I had noticed, while attending a presidential speech and parade, that Obiang's keybodyguards were Moroccan mercenaries rather than compatriots, whom he apparently could not trust. Although U.S. power is diminished by the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, it remains fearsome to an autocrat whose air force consists of less than a dozen planes apparentlypiloted by Eastern Europeans. So, my bluff succeeded. The minister ceased harassing me.
For the usual and shameful reasons, the White House does not use its clout to condemn Obiang as it condemns Mugabe—there has not been a word of censure from Washington about Obiang's 99-for-100 triumph in May's elections. Yet that's only part of the reason Americans hear little about him. There isn't a gag order on America's media, after all. There is, however, a famous dictator trying to crush a peaceful uprising in a far larger country with a historical narrative that we're familiar with and fascinated by—in a dramatic fashion, Zimbabwe has gone from white rule to independence to destitution. Mugabe's government admits to an inflation rate of 150,000 percent, but that's the optimistic view, because unofficial estimates are a calculator-busting 1 million percent. This drama casts an unfortunate spell, because Obiang is not just a worse tyrant, he is a better story. The U.S. government is not propping up Mugabe, but with billions invested by American companies in Equatorial Guinea, it is propping up Obiang. The Equatorial Guinean minister who owns the building that houses the U.S. Embassy in Malabo has even been accused of torture by human rights organizations. Instead of seeking an indictment against the man, the U.S. government is putting rent money in his pocket.(A lot of rent money, actually—$17,500 a month.)
You haven't heard that before? The tragedy is that you might not hear of it again.
Correction, June 25, 2008: This article originally claimed that an SEC investigation led to money-laundering fines against Riggs Bank. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency pursued the investigation. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Peter Maass, a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, is working on a book about oil that will be published in 2009.
Photograph of Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang by Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images. Photograph of Obiang on the Slate home page courtesy the U.S. government.