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Malabo Dispatch: Trade Union

On a Sunday just before Christmas in a village near Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, the silent air is more reminiscent of a church service than of the presidential election taking place that day. A young woman approaches the open-air voting table, picks up a paper showing President Obiang Nguema's picture, and hands it to an officer for sealing and posting in the ballot box. Five security agents look on, including two military men, a police officer, and a man bearing a black uniform, sunglasses, and gold teeth who describes himself as "reserve police." Three of them openly display firearms. 

Three days later, Equatorial Guinea learned that President Obiang had won reelection with more than 97 percent of the vote. But the polling has yet to prompt much public criticism from the United States. It's true that, in its annual report last year, the State Department criticized the denial of freedom of speech and the use of torture and arbitrary detention by Equatorial Guinea's security services. Still, far from denouncing the elections, or Obiang's government more broadly, Washington has confirmed that this year it will reopen the embassy in Equatorial Guinea that it shut down in 1995. The State Department states on its website that the two governments have "good" relations, adding that Equatorial Guinea says human rights abuses in the country are the result of "excessive zeal on the part of local authorities."

Obiang isn't the only Central or West African autocrat receiving favorable American attention these days. President Omar Bongo has ruled for more than 35 years in Gabon--the State Department calls relations between the two countries "excellent" and says the United States provides military training to members of the Gabonese armed forces. Cameroon, ruled by President Paul Biya for more than 20 years and criticized in the past over human rights abuses, has worked closely with the United States on a number of initiatives since joining the U.N. Security Council last year. Angola, whose president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, was once fiercely opposed by the United States because of his leftist politics, has enjoyed a deepening relationship with the United States. The State Department says this reflects "Angola's role as a major energy source and recognition by the U.S. of Angola's regional importance."

To many observers in Central and West Africa, the reason for America's new interest is clear: Recent years have witnessed large offshore crude-oil discoveries in the Gulf of Guinea, which stretches down Africa's Atlantic coast, that could provide huge opportunities to U.S. businesses. ChevronTexaco, which has invested almost $5 billion in Africa-related energy projects over the last five years, plans, together with its partners, to invest a further $20 billion over the next five. But, despite pledges like last year's national security strategy commitment to work to build an African continent of "liberty, peace, and growing prosperity," the United States is accused of failing to use its leverage to push these oil-rich nations toward democratic values. Instead, at a time when the United States claims to be confronting authoritarian regimes in Arab oil states, it appears to be buttressing them in African ones.

In a region of stunted polities, Equatorial Guinea--a country of just half a million people--has amassed a particularly dismal record since it gained independence from Spain in 1968. President Obiang, who took power from his murderous uncle in a 1979 coup, introduced multiparty democracy in the early '90s only to win 98 percent of the vote in the 1996 presidential election, which international critics claimed was plagued by ballot-rigging. The most recent election was set for February. But, in November, Obiang called it early, leaving little time for the opposition to prepare. Around town, his preprinted posters hung from government and business buildings and far outnumbered the opposition's. In the port town of Luba, troops drove around the day before the election in a silver Toyota minivan with posters of Obiang's Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea stuck to its front and back. Clemente Engonga Nguema, the interior minister and head of the country's nominally independent electoral commission, insists the army is apolitical.

At the same time, Equatorial Guinea is already the fifteenth-largest oil supplier to the United States-- production is dominated by U.S. companies such as ExxonMobil and is expected to rise to at least 300,000 barrels per day as exploration and production are ramped up in the coming years. Not only is the United States reopening its embassy in Malabo, but President Obiang visited the United States in 2000 and 2001 and met with senior officials. The State Department reports growing commercial ties between U.S. companies and Equatorial Guinea: The Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the U.S. government's overseas investment promotion agency, struck its largest deal in sub-Saharan Africa with Equatorial Guinea in 2000. The result? "I think the more oil they have, the more arrogant they are becoming," says one foreign diplomat about Obiang's government. "They feel more strength: Given the geopolitical situation, the U.S. is paying more attention to them."

The United States is showing similar interest in other autocratic oil states in Central and West Africa. American officials estimate that Africa accounts for 15 percent of U.S. oil imports, and they forecast that sub-Saharan Africa alone is expected to supply 25 percent of America's crude-oil requirements by 2015. Walter Kansteiner, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, toured Central and West Africa twice in the second half of last year, including visits to Nigeria, Gabon, and Angola. Last year, Sao Tome and Principe, a tiny archipelago nation of fewer than 200,000 people, received a visit from General Carlton Fulford, deputy commander-in-chief of the U.S. European Command. The trip fueled rumors of American intentions to build a large military base in the Gulf of Guinea, although the Bush administration has denied such plans exist.

President Bush himself adopted a friendly tone of cooperation when he met ten Central African heads of state at the U.N. General Assembly in September. The leaders included the presidents of oil-rich but repressive nations such as Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Cameroon, and Gabon. (In return, the presidents committed themselves to supporting U.S. policy on terrorism and the Middle East.) At a lunch in his honor held six days later in Washington by the Corporate Council on Africa, Obiang praised the U.S. administration's efforts to bring about "greater understanding and solidarity" in Central and West Africa. The Corporate Council's website says it represents companies accounting for almost 85 percent of U.S. private-sector investment in Africa, with members including large oil companies such as ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco.

In Nigeria, where ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco are the country's second- and third-largest oil producers, the State Department made little public fuss when massacres were carried out by the armed forces under Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military dictator elected as civilian leader in 1999. State Department officials say the United States has provided training to help equip the Nigerian army to function in a democratic society and participate in West African regional peacekeeping missions. Still, Kansteiner visited Nigeria in July, amid reports--which he denied--that the United States was pressuring Nigeria to leave OPEC. Next month, when Nigeria attempts its first successful transition between civilian governments since independence in 1960, ballot fraud is widely expected, and election-related violence has already begun: Two weeks ago, a leading opposition politician was killed, a murder condemned by Obasanjo. In a candid insight into international attitudes toward the region, one Western diplomat says the irregularities are likely to be serious but not so bad that rich nations will be unable to "avert our eyes."

To be sure, oil isn't the only issue: The United States has also courted African countries in its diplomatic campaign against Iraq. Guinea, Angola, and Cameroon hold seats on the Security Council, and Guinea took over the rotating presidency at the start of March. Kansteiner visited Guinea and Angola in February and held talks with Cameroon's President Biya in Paris. For Guinea, criticized in the past by the United States for its record on democracy and corruption, it was the second visit by the assistant secretary in a matter of months.

Whether it is oil or Iraq, though, U.S. policy in oil-rich Africa has been decidedly nonjudgmental, despite the most flagrant violations of democracy. In Malabo, the day before the election, residents showed me how voting would take place in a large, open area where an abandoned truck dominated the town center like a rusting village monument. The ballot would be held publicly, they said. "Here, there is no other person to vote for," explained one man. "There is one candidate only." Many Equatoguineans say there's one foreign sponsor that is helping ensure it remains that way.

This article originally ran in the April 7, 2003, issue of the magazine.