Oil and Guyana’s fortunes: Lessons from Equatorial Guinea

Just around  the same time last week when the Department of Energy was preparing to break the news of ExxonMobil’s eleventh and twelfth oil discoveries offshore Guyana,  prosecutors  in Geneva were winding down a two-year-old money laundering inquiry involving  the eldest son of Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nugema Mbasogo, Africa’s longest serving ruler. The younger Nugema’s (Teodorin) reported unceasing embezzlement of funds from his country’s coffers to finance an exorbitant jet-setting lifestyle ranks among Africa’s most notorious contemporary corruption scandals.

Equatorial Guinea is a tiny former Spanish colony situated on the west coast of Africa which, having struck oil in 1995 is now one of sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest oil producers, though, against the backdrop of a largely impoverished population, the country wears the label of a textbook  case of the resource curse associated with historically poor countries becoming further disfigured by the sudden infusion of wealth.

In one of those anomalous situations where state power centres around a family-focused cabal, (attended by a wider circle of cronies) the lavishly opulent Teodorin just happens to be his country’s second Vice President and reportedly his father’s heir apparent, which of course raises questions regarding the likely worsening of the pillaging of Equatorial Guinea’s oil earnings if and when he assumes the presidency.

The ongoing investigations in Switzerland, France, the United States and elsewhere centre around the astounding appetite of Equatorial Guinea’s ‘First Son’ for wealth and showmanship, his capacity for treating the public purse as though it were his private ‘stash’ having long been the subject of widespread legal and media interests in capitals across Europe and in the United States. Court battles in the US and Europe centre around efforts to seize  a number of Teodorin’s assets including exorbitantly priced real estate, a multi-million dollar Gulfstream jet and a fleet of cars known for their value as collectors’ items. In impoverished Equatorial Guinea, President Nugema’s regime continually inserts itself into Theodorin’s international legal entanglements at enormous further cost to the already severely plundered state. Beyond what is believed to be outright theft, the younger Nugema and others belonging to his father’s inner circle have employed a bewildering array of illegal schemes including extortion, embezzlement in addition to the direct misappropriation of funds and state-owned lands.

“Oil rich with grinding poverty” is the phrase used in a recent article that seeks to describe the socio-economic conditions in contemporary Equatorial Guinea. Amidst a global fall in oil prices, the country’s income has been considerably reduced, though the altered fortunes of the oil sector have seemingly done little to sate the greed of the Nugema clan, not least the incumbent ruler’s jet-setting ‘heir apparent.’

Public discourse here in Guyana on how to safeguard the nation’s wealth from the eventuality of corrupt and acquisitive government has, from time to time, made passing references to the plight of Equatorial Guinea. Nugema, his family and his acquisitive entourage possess the advantage of protracted political entrenchment which offers a considerable measure of protection for their lavish ‘gravy train.’ That is not the case in Guyana.  Whether or not Guyanese are able to derive long-term benefits from their eagerly awaited oil resources, however, will depend on the choices that they make, going forward. In the process there are sobering lessons to be learnt from Equatorial Guinea.

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