Who's Africa's Worst Dictator?
Hint: It's probably not Robert Mugabe.
A pop quiz: Who is the worst dictator in Africa?
a) Robert Mugabe
b) Robert Mugabe
c) Robert Mugabe
d) None of the above
The answer seems obvious. Thanks to extensive coverage in the news media and abundant criticism by Western governments, everyone knows that Zimbabwe's leader is trying to hang onto power by crushing his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, who would roll to victory in the final round of elections on June 27 if his followers were not being killed, beaten, jailed, or harassed by state thugs. Even President George W. Bush described Mugabe's rule as a "nightmare."
But Mugabe may not be Africa's worst. That prize arguably goes to Teodoro Obiang, the ruler of Equatorial Guinea whose life seems a parody of the dictator genre. Years of violent apprenticeship in a genocidal regime led by a crazy uncle? Check. Power grab in a coup against the murderous uncle? Check. Execution of now-deposed uncle by firing squad? Check. Proclamation of self as "the liberator" of the nation? Check. Govern for decades in a way that prompts human rights groups to accuse your regime of murder, torture, and corruption? Check, check, and check.
Obiang, who seized power in 1979, had promised to be kinder and gentler than his predecessor, but in the 1990s, even the U.S. ambassador to Equatorial Guinea received a death threat from a regime insider, the ambassador has said,and had to be evacuated. Not long after that, offshore oil was discovered, but the first wave of revenues—about $700 million—was transferred into secret accounts under Obiang's personal control. The latest chapter, written in the last month, may be the least surprising, because Obiang's ruling party won 99 of the 100 seats in legislative elections. A government press release, hailing Obiang as the "Militant Brother Founding President of the PDGE," carried the headline, "Democracy at Its Peak in Equatorial Guinea."
If you haven't heard any of this, don't worry; as far as I can tell, the only American journalist who has reported on Obiang's electoral theft is Ken Silverstein, who writes for Harper's and has for many years poured out a primal scream of investigative reports into Obiang's misrule. Other than Silverstein's recent postings and several wire-service stories that were not picked up in America, there has been a vacuum of coverage about a suppression of democracy in Africa that is more complete than what Mugabe is trying to get away with. True, Equatorial Guinea is a small country with a population of less than 1 million, its economy is expanding in an oil boom, and Obiang's "victory" did not require the obvious and crude violence of Mugabe's ongoing terror. But Obiang's enforcers don't need to club people on the streets. His would-be opponents are too frightened to openly demonstrate against him. His is the Switzerland of dictatorships—so effective at enforcing obedience that the spectacle of unrest is invisible.
The reality of the regime's brutishness nearly hit me over the head as I was being expelled from the country while researching a book on oil in 2004. I had already been chilled by the docility of the people—unlike other countries in the Third World, no one approached me as I walked the streets. (The only place where I had felt a similar pattern of fear was North Korea.) After I had been in Equatorial Guinea for a bit more than a week, the minister of information, Alfonso Nsue Mokuy, summoned me to the patio of the Bahia Hotel, where Frederick Forsyth had written The Dogs of War, and told me I was an anti-Obiang agitator or a spy—he wasn't sure which. I would be on the next plane out of the country, he said. One of his aides escorted me to the airport, and soon after we arrived, the minister showed up and rifled through my bags, seizing memory chips and notes, accusing me of being a spy (he had concluded I was not an agitator), and threatening to take me downtown for a real Obiang-style interrogation.
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.