One of Africa's smallest countries, Equatorial Guinea rarely makes headlines. When the country has made the news, it's been because of seemingly outlandish plots to overthrow the government, such as an attempt by foreign mercenaries in 2004 that included British national Mark Thatcher, son of the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher. But in light of another failed coup attempt in the oil-rich African country by alleged mercenaries in the waning days of 2017, concerns about the stability of the rule of the continent's decadeslong leader are front and center. With age catching up to septuagenarian President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the uncertainty surrounding a possible transfer of power to his son could spell a bumpy road ahead for the country.
Independent since 1968, Equatorial Guinea is unique in that it is the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa. The country of 1.2 million people consists of a main island, several small islands and a mainland on the Atlantic coast of Central Africa that borders Cameroon and Gabon. Despite its small size and low population, Equatorial Guinea is home to several ethnic groups, which the country's leaders have struggled to manage.
Citizens suffered greatly in the decade after independence as the first president, Francisco Macias Nguema, proclaimed himself the "Unique Miracle" and proceeded to subject political opponents, both real and perceived, to bizarre and sadistic violence. The chaos ultimately prompted Nguema's nephew, Obiang, to organize a coup in August 1979. Nguema was executed the next month after a perfunctory show trial. Although Obiang put a stop to the more eccentric brutality Equatorial Guineans had experienced under Nguema, he continued his predecessor's legacy of political repression. Today, the country's ruling party, the Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea, controls nearly every seat in parliament — as it has done since its founding in 1987.
Cloak and Dagger on the Equator
Viewed as a peripheral African state for decades, Equatorial Guinea gained greater significance when oil was discovered off its coast in the mid-1990s. Since then, the wealth generated by oil production has significantly added to the government coffers. The newfound riches, combined with the government's repression, clannishness and perceived inefficiency, eventually piqued the interest of mercenaries in 2004. With reported backing from wealthy British citizens, including Mark Thatcher, they attempted to overthrow the government and install Severo Moto Nsa, a prominent exiled politician, as president in exchange for lucrative oil concessions. Later dubbed the "Wonga coup," the effort failed spectacularly when Zimbabwean authorities arrested the mercenaries and their British leader, a former Special Air Service officer named Simon Mann, at Harare airport as they waited for an arms shipment.
Paranoid after the Wonga plot, Obiang cracked down on opponents. But apart from the initial wave of repression, outward calm returned to Equatorial Guinea in the subsequent years. But news that mercenaries who were intent on overthrowing Obiang were arrested in Cameroon in December suggests the country remains an attractive target for enterprising foreign forces. Obiang told Radio France International and France24 that the majority of the mercenaries were recruited from the Central African Republic and Chad, and reportedly included a leader who was a former member of Chadian President Idriss Deby's presidential guard. While the Chadian government is unlikely to be responsible for the conspiracy against Obiang, Chadian soldiers (both active and retired) are some of the most battle-hardened on the continent, having participated in recent decades in operations against Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi, better known by its former name, Boko Haram; fought for the French in Mali; and clamped down on rebellions in Chad. Their experience raises the prospect that military adventurers could solicit their services for future coup attempts. Obiang's government has accused circles in France, the home of large African diasporas, as well as exiled politicians and military members from Africa who might be enticed by Equatorial Guinea's oil wealth, of hatching the plot and providing the participants in the coup attempt with financial support. Obiang's government has publicly absolved Paris of any complicity in the coup attempt. Indeed, France and Equatorial Guinea maintain tight relations, and the country has moved closer to the French orbit in recent years in exchange for French development and some surreptitious political support.
Last month's coup attempt came amid wider insecurity throughout Central Africa. Several countries in the region, including Equatorial Guinea, have been feeling the financial pinch from low oil prices for years. While such a shortfall would tax the resources of even normally functioning states, clan-led producers like Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Republic of Congo lack strong institutions and depend heavily on profits from oil production to grease the patronage networks that underpin their rule. Earlier this month, leaders in the Republic of Congo accused two high-ranking army generals of attempting to shoot down the presidential jet as part of a coup plot.
Despite the recent reports of intrigue, tolerance for coups has fallen across Africa as countries worry about meddling in neighbors for fear of blowback. The recent ouster of longtime Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe provides a case in point: Even as military leaders took measures that bore all the hallmarks of a coup, they went to extraordinary lengths to downplay suggestions that they were conducting a takeover. In the case of Equatorial Guinea, however, the government's reputation for political violence and for failing to share oil wealth might have led those who plotted last month's coup attempt to believe that the global community would have acceded to their takeover if they quickly instituted a more open government — all while naturally reaping the oil benefits.
The Heir Less Apparent
The Obiang government survived the recent coup with the help of its neighbor, Cameroon. More turbulence, however, appears to be on the horizon. Obiang, 75 and reportedly suffering from cancer, is rumored to be grooming his 48-year-old son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, for the presidency. Obiang's current term will expire in 2023, and he has suggested that he will not remain in power thereafter. However, Obiang's son, a vice president since 2012, is known more for his ostentatious spending and jet-set lifestyle than for his political acumen. In fact, authorities in the United States and France have confiscated property from Obiang's son, and French authorities fined him more than $36 million in October for his part in "ill-gotten gains."
Because of the impenetrable nature of the Obiang government, it is hard to assess whether the president's son possesses the skills necessary to navigate the clan politics inherent in Equatorial Guinea — particularly if Obiang suddenly passes away without first preparing his son for the job. And in the absence of any organized political opposition, Obiang's eventual departure could provide a window of opportunity for senior officials to seize power. Such a takeover could produce initial confusion and ignite violence among political elites in Malabo, the capital, but a messy transfer of power is unlikely to destabilize the region because of Equatorial Guinea's comparative isolation. Furthermore, any change in government is unlikely to negatively affect oil operations, as any new leaders would prioritize the continuation of production to grease their own patronage networks to consolidate their rule.
Last month's coup attempt cast a rare spotlight on Equatorial Guinea and its opaque internal workings. While the government survived the latest scare, Equatorial Guinea's clan politics and weak institutions, as well as questions regarding whether Obiang's son is fit for the job, could spell trouble for stability in the country. And in a nation that suffers from endemic inequality despite vast oil reserves, it is a near certainty that ordinary citizens stand to gain little from any handover of power — forced or otherwise.