Various attempts have been made to improve the strained nature of the relationship between Spain and Equatorial Guinea. The strange incident involving the departure and sudden return of the naval vessels Patiño and Canarias demonstrates the difficulty of rebuilding relations between the two countries even at times when their interests appear to converge.
The despatch of two Spanish naval vessels to the Gulf of Guinea is an unprecedented act in the history of Spanish-Guinean relations. The reasons behind this mission were not sufficiently explained and no convincing explanation for the counter-order was given either. One wonders if the action had something to do with internal or external Guinean politics. If internal, what was the meaning of a Spanish naval presence? If external, it may have been related to one of the frontier squabbles with its neighbours. In either case, the key reason could be the strategic oilfields off the Guinean coast.
Decolonisation of Equatorial Guinea occurred on October 12th 1968. At that time the territory consisted of Rio Muni on the mainland and the islands of Fernando Poo (now Bioko), Annobon, Corisco and other nearby islands (Elobey Grande, Elobey Chico, Mbañé and Cocoteros). It was a traumatic event. Spain destroyed the dreams of independence cherished by the Bubis, who inhabited the islands. They feared –what was in fact to happen– domination by the Fang, who lived on the mainland. Furthermore and despite Spanish control of the electoral process, the first president of the new republic was the candidate most hostile to Spain, Francisco Macías Nguema. He very quickly turned into a corrupt and bloody tyrant. Macías not only expelled Spanish businessmen but also other Spaniards who were involved in work such as education, health and religion. The vast majority of Spaniards fled in fear, after being stripped of their belongings, rather than be murdered by marauding gangs of fanatics. The president then aligned his foreign policy with the oriental version of communism and built close ties with China and North Korea.
The revolt led by Macías’ nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, at first enjoyed a certain amount of Spanish sympathy although it does not appear that Spain had anything to do with it. It was soon seen that domestic policy would change little. Despite some cosmetic moves, the Fang continued to dominate and the Bubi population was completely marginalised. Under Macias the dominant Fang tribe had been the Mongomo (from an inland area of Rio Muni) and they continued in this role. Although the most sinister aspects of Macías’ rule (such as cannibalism) disappeared, the new regime continued to act in a tyrannical fashion. Electoral processes were falsified, there were systematic violations of human rights and widespread corruption. These circumstances (ethnic tension and despotic policies) were behind a number of revolts that failed, including the attempt by Severo Moto and the Bubi revolts. In addition, coups were invented as an excuse to hunt down the most active members of the domestic opposition (as in the case of Placido Micó) or to settle scores among members of the dominant clan (as in the case of Felipe Ondó).
However, although the new regime made few changes to domestic policy, more significant changes were made in foreign policy. The first and most important of these was to encourage reconciliation with Spain. At the same time, the country distanced itself from the communist regimes. In the African arena, Obiang started to co-operate with Morocco’s King Hassan. From then onwards, Moroccan soldiers formed the dictator’s ‘Praetorian Guard’. In exchange, Obiang made Equatorial Guinea one of the African states that defended the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara in the OAU and at the UN. He also approved some Islamic missions sponsored by Hassan. For his part, the Moroccan King arranged for Equatorial Guinea to become part of the Francophone economic area (replacing the Guinean peseta with the CFA franc) and brought it into the area of French cultural influence (the Francophonie). From then on, Obiang could put pressure on Spain by threatening to join the French camp. Indeed, there were several crises in Spanish-Guinean relations. The worst was perhaps in 1993 when the Spanish consul in Bata was expelled for “being involved in domestic affairs”. The Spanish government responded by expelling an Equatorial Guinean diplomat, cutting financial aid by half and interrupting its aid programme.
However, various international events have steadily altered this scenario. The first was the discovery of oil in 1995. After Hispanoil (a Spanish company) and Elf (the French company that operates the oil fields in neighbouring Gabon) failed, the US companies Mobil Oil and UMC started commercial operations in the Zafiro field. From that point on, Equatorial Guinea appeared on the map of US geopolitical interests in the area. There were many reasons for this. The small country contains important oil reserves. In December 2002, the confirmed reserves of Equatorial Guinea were put at 563.5 million barrels. The aggregate figure for the entire Gulf of Guinea has been estimated at between 5% and 10% of the world’s reserves (in 2001 experts put confirmed West African reserves at 90,000 barrels –a very respectable figure). These oilfields are also safer to operate as they are situated offshore and transport from the gulf to North America is also safer and cheaper. In addition, there is no serious cultural friction between Equatorial Guinea and the US (unlike the situation in the Persian Gulf). Almost by chance then, the country became one of the important prizes in Africa in terms of US strategic interests –basically in the face of French competition. The second event was the consolidation of a deepening strategic alliance between Spain and the US during the second term of the Aznar government. The third event, which was closely linked to the previous one, was disagreement with France over several important issues (the invasion of the island of Perejil, the conflict in Western Sahara and the debate over the European constitution). The fourth and final event was Gabon’s invasion of Mbañé, an Equatorial Guinean islet, coveted for some time by France first and then by Gabon. The problem acquired a new dimension when it was found that there were extraordinary oil deposits in the waters around Mbañé. This has occurred at a time when oil output in Gabon is dropping alarmingly (in 2003 Gabon’s oil income was 268 billion CFA francs, down from 466 billion CFA francs in 2000).
Together, the new circumstances have led to a new scenario. At present Spanish and Guinean interests have more than ever in common. First, the Mbañé conflict is seen not as a conflict between Gabon and Equatorial Guinea but as a conflict between Elf (a French oil company that controls Gabon, where the oil reserves are running out) and the US oil companies that control the growing reserves in Guinea. In this context, Spain’s relations with the US contribute to an objective approximation of Spanish and Equatorial Guinean positions. Secondly, the dispute has been put to international arbitration by the Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, who has placed the case in the hands of a Canadian lawyer, Yves Fortier. As it turns out the key documents that support Equatorial Guinea’s ownership of the islet are… in the hands of Spain. Furthermore, the Spanish Foreign Minister, Ana Palacio, during her visit to Guinea in November 2003, left the Quai d’Orsay deeply concerned by stating that Spain has documents that prove Spanish sovereignty of the island prior to independence. Thirdly, the necessary Spanish support in the Mbañé dispute and the good relationship with the US might explain why, since June 2003, Repsol has won licences in the African country. Specifically, it appears that the US company Vanco has ceded part of its Corisco Deep block. Not only that, it appears Repsol might also enter the Corisco Bay block (very close to Mbañé), which is currently shared by the Malaysian company Petronas and Vanco. Something similar might be about to happen with the E block, where Total had drilled without success.
The enormous economic and strategic importance of Mbañé Islet has not only international repercussions but could also be the cause of the country’s current domestic instability. To the attempted coups sponsored by the opposition or by dissident elements of the ‘Mongomo clan’ has now been added a new domestic threat. Rumour has it that pro-French (or pro-Elf) and pro-Gabonese groups may be financing a new coup d’etat. Should this be the case, Obiang would be in serious danger. It is questionable whether the Moroccan forces that protect him at present would remain loyal or would act in the interests of Morocco (a very close ally of France and Gabon). New elections must be held in Equatorial Guinea in about six weeks time. Nothing appears to indicate anything other than a new electoral fraud. The question is whether the regime will move in the direction of democracy (with limited fraud) or continue as usual (massive fraud). The highly probable existence of fraud could become an excuse for launching a new coup. But this time things are different. We are not facing a coup d’etat like those before but one heavily supported and financed by French interests through its African arm, Elf (now TotalFinaElf), with the help of Gabon, which is totally dominated by Elf. There is even speculation that Elf’s man will be Manuel Rubén Ndong, a Francophone writer who lives in France (unlike nearly all the other exiles, who live in Spain). If all this is true, it can be assumed that the attempted coup will be of considerable proportions and, if it succeeds, the consequences should be far-reaching. Like the rumours regarding the “Francophone conspiracy”, the possibility of a US-Spanish inspired counter-coup cannot be discounted.
The theory that the aborted Spanish intervention had something to do with a possible domestic coup (with serious external consequences) is difficult to prove in view of the confusing and contradictory official communiqués. However, it seems that behind all the information there are objective details that support this idea. In the first place the head of the naval mission was notified in an extraordinarily urgent manner (the captain was told only 60 hours before departure) and in great secrecy. Secondly, besides the crew (the only personnel needed in the case of a courtesy visit) the ships also carried marines (ie, assault troops). Thirdly, the marines were vaccinated against infections that might be encountered on land. This shows that they were considering the possibility of an intervention. Fourthly, the Foreign Minister has said that the two ships were headed not only for Equatorial Guinea but also for Gabon. It has also been claimed that the expedition was cancelled because permission had not been requested to enter Gabonese waters (the area disputed with Equatorial Guinea?). Fifthly, the government order was for the ships to remain ‘for the next 45 days’ in the area to establish a ‘naval presence’. A combination of these facts may explain the reason for the expedition. We are confronted by enormous oil wealth which has strategic value for the US and France. This wealth is in the hands of an extraordinarily weak government, despite the oppression to which it subjects its people. The government’s weakness is a powerful temptation for large international players who might take over political power in this strategic country through ‘nominees’. Thus the purpose of the Spanish naval force may have been an attempt to head off a coup that would have inverted international influence in an area where conditions have so far been favourable to US interests (an important Spanish ally). If this is the case, the ships may have had one of the following two missions: either to support a coup d’etat to establish a new pro-US and pro-Spanish government before Obiang succumbs to the cancer he is suffering (creating a dangerous power vacuum), or to support a counter-coup in the event of a planned pro-French move against the president.
However, the recall of the Spanish vessels before they reached their destination remains unexplained. One possible explanation might be that the leak to the press regarding the expedition forewarned the Equatorial Guineans. Those that might have been involved in any conspiracy, would have aborted their mission. It is significant that although the Spanish government said the decision to send the ships was made jointly, a presidential adviser of the Guinean government claimed his country had no knowledge of the operation.
All this leads one to reflect on the political options facing Spain in the light of the above. Spanish policy should be aimed at strengthening the weak flanks of Equatorial Guinea. Basically these are the political, military and social areas and –paradoxically– the economic area. Equatorial Guinea is politically unstable for the simple reason that an important part of the population is being persecuted. This small country would be politically more stable if it had greater respect for human rights, political participation and the consolidation of democracy. Spain should propose a realistic plan for political transition to Obiang. Although the Spanish model of political transition is not suitable for Equatorial Guinea, a specific plan could be drawn up. In principle, it would be closer to the path followed by Chile after Pinochet resigned power. This would serve the interests of the elite that currently governs the country as well as those of Spain. From the military point of view, Spain should attempt to replace the Moroccan garrison now in Equatorial Guinea. The links between Gabon and TotalFinaElf, between the latter and France and between France and Morocco, should alert Obiang as well as Spain to the potential dangers the Moroccan military presence poses to Equatorial Guinean stability. Spain has contributed, and continues to contribute, to the country’s social fabric. The presence of aid workers and missionaries should be strengthened and encouraged because their work is essential to the creation of a ‘civil society’. In economic terms, the challenge is no less important. A market economy must be set up to allow the presence of Spanish investors. Despite foreign investment in the oil sector there have been no foreign investments in other fields. The main reason for this is the lack of a judicial structure and laws to protect investments within the country. An economy is needed that can take advantage of the oil wealth to the benefit of all the population and not just the elite. And this is only possible in an appropriate legal framework. Spain has the ability to draw up such a legal framework for Equatorial Guinea.
The despatch of a naval force to Equatorial Guinea is an event of extraordinary importance in the relations between Spain and this country. The discovery of important oil reserves means that the internal political crises of this tiny African nation are creating international repercussions. US firms have an important presence in Equatorial Guinea and they compete with the French company Elf. The waters around Mbañé Islet cover important amounts of oil and ownership of the islet is disputed by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. These facts and the important role played by Spain in this dispute, mean that the new scheme of Spanish international relations is being transferred to the Central African arena. The sudden return of the ships to Spain may herald a future Spanish military presence in Equatorial Guinea if the death of Obiang, or other unforeseen factors, leads to a power vacuum that might be filled by forces serving interests opposed to those of Spain.
Carlos Ruiz Miguel
Chair of Constitutional Law of the Santiago de Compostela University