Oil and the Misspent Riches of Equatorial Guinea

Thomas A. Wikle, Oklahoma State University
DOI: 10.21690/foge/2019.62.7f

Evidence of prosperity isn’t difficult to find in Equatorial Guinea. Scattered among colonial-era buildings are high-rise office towers, freshly-painted apartment complexes, and ornate government buildings, some lined with marble columns. There are also new hospitals, sports stadiums, four-star hotels, conference centers, and championship golf courses. Older urban areas are linked to new ones through a highway system rivaling those in Europe and the U.S. Everywhere, vacant lots play host to earthmovers, construction cranes, concrete mixers, and piles of building materials. Equatorial Guinea’s expanding infrastructure symbolizes its newfound economic status. Once among the World’s poorest countries, the former Spanish territory boasts the highest per capita gross national product (US $36,270) in Africa (Global Finance 2019). But summary statistics can be misleading. Outside major cities, the landscape appears similar to less developed African countries with the dirt streets of rural villages lined by houses without indoor plumbing. Unemployment and poverty rates are high while literacy and life expectancy are low (Beegle et al. 2016). Lacking access to healthcare and education, a large percentage of the population survives on subsistence agriculture by growing cassava, sweet potato, and bananas. For visitors, the country’s landscape is like a movie set with elaborate façades hiding squalid conditions just beyond view.

Equatorial Guinea’s urban transformation began 25 years ago when geologists with Mobil Oil (now ExxonMobil) discovered substantial petroleum reserves within the country’s territorial waters. Work soon began on drilling and storage facilities and within two years the country’s offshore fields were producing 80,000 barrels per day (bpd)(Oil and Gas Journal 1998). Oil brought a financial windfall. Between 1997 and 2001 the country’s economy was the fastest growing in the World with foreign reserves increasing from US $40,000 to more than $3.1 billion (Frynas 2004). With new capital, the country’s president and ruling party were positioned to expand healthcare, increase access to education, and implement policies to attract foreign investment. However, in lieu of improving the standard of living, new wealth was directed towards infrastructure projects designed to impress international visitors and provide financial benefits for the President and his family. This article traces Equatorial Guinea’s recent history with a focus on oil revenue and its role in transforming the country’s urban landscapes.

Republic of Equatorial Guinea Flag

An Unlikely Geography

Equatorial Guinea isn’t well-known, even among Africans. The country is noteworthy for having the continent’s longest serving head of state and for being Africa’s only nation with Spanish as its official language. Despite having pristine rainforests and abundant wildlife, the country attracts few international tourists. A distinguishing characteristic of Equatorial Guinea is its unlikely international boundary that encircles widely dispersed islands and a small region on Africa’s mainland. Its two largest islands, Bioko and Annobón, are part of the Bonny Islands, a series of volcanic peaks extending from Mt. Cameroon on Africa’s mainland to the southwest across the Gulf of Guinea. Located 40 kilometers west of Cameroon’s Atlantic coastline, Bioko Island has geographic extremes with a high, rugged interior featuring alpine landscapes and a coastline bordered in places by mangrove swamps. Far to the southwest is Annobón Island, located 350 kilometers west of Gabon’s Cape Lopez and separated from Bioko by the island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe. Measuring six by three kilometers, Annobón’s land area is just 18 square kilometers. Named for an estuary of the Utamboni River, the mainland province of Río Muni is bordered to the north by Cameroon and to the south and east by Gabon (Figure 1). The mainland region’s 26,017 square kilometers are part of the Congo Basin, Africa’s largest forested area and the World’s second largest tropical rainforest. Including Annobón Island, the country’s geographic boundaries extend from 4˚ north to 2˚ south latitude and from 5˚ to 12˚ east longitude.

Figure 1: Equatorial Guinea and Offshore Oil and Gas Areas

Influenced by its position near the Equator and proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, Equatorial Guinea’s tropical climate has pronounced wet and dry seasons with temperatures in the country’s capital city of Malabo ranging from 16 to 33˚C. In terms of flora, the landscape is dominated by dense tropical forests that contain more than 140 types of trees including mahogany, ebony, and rubber. For those traveling away from urban areas, the country’s exceptional biodiversity can be seen in animal life that includes dwarf antelope, hippo, elephant, gorilla, and four species of sea turtle.

History and Settlement

Human occupation of Equatorial Guinea began about 10,000 years ago when early descendants of a Bantu ethnic group known as the Bubi migrated from central Africa to uninhabited Bioko Island (known to the Bubis as Etulá). Early occupants of Río Muni were pygmy and Ndowe peoples who were followed by successive waves of other groups including the Bubi after 1200 and the Fang in the mid-1600s (Lea 2001). Like most African nations, the country’s history has been shaped by colonial occupation. Searching for a route to Asia, the Portuguese were first to reach Bioko in 1471 with the island subsequently named Fernando Pó in honor of the expedition’s leader. The first European settlement on Fernando Pó was a Dutch trading post established in 1642. The island was later occupied by the Portuguese who grew sugar cane for export to Europe. During the sixteenth century, Fernando Pó supported operations for transporting slaves captured on the mainland to destinations in the Americas. In 1778, Portugal traded Fernando Pó Island and commercial rights over a mainland region extending between the Ogooué and Niger Rivers to Spain in exchange for territory in Brazil (Brown 1895).

Spain’s first attempt to establish a permanent colony on Fernando Pó was unsuccessful due to threats from disease. Beginning in 1827, the British leased land on the island, establishing an antislavery base at Port Clarence where Malabo stands today (Sundiata 1996). In 1855, Spain reasserted control over Fernando Pó, designating their West African lands, Territorios Españoles del Golfo de Guinea (Spanish Territory of the Gulf of Guinea) and renaming Port Clarence as Santa Isabel in honor of Queen Isabella II. For the next several decades the territory attracted few European settlers with most economic activities focused on palm oil and cocoa production. For a brief period, the island served as a penal colony for Cubans of African descent and by the end of the Spanish-American War (April 21, 1898 to August 13, 1898) the territory was Spain’s last tropical colony.

Figure 2: Malabo’s colonial-era Santa Isabel Cathedral. Photo by Thomas Wikle.

By 1900, the economic situation on Fernando Pó showed signs of improvement as profits from cocoa exports began to attract migrants from Spain. A subsequent construction boom was responsible for many colonial-era structures seen today in Malabo including Santa Isabel Cathedral (Figure 2). With much of their attention focused on Fernando Pó, Spanish authorities were slow to pursue economic interests on the mainland. Settlements there were limited to a military garrison at the site of the present-day City of Bata and coastal trading stations at the mouths of major rivers. In 1900, Spain transferred control of more than 300,000 square kilometers on the mainland to France as part of the Treaty of Paris. This left only the 26,017 square kilometer Río Muni region under Spanish control (Roberts 1986).

In 1926, Spanish holdings in the Gulf of Guinea were formally designated the province of Spanish Guinea with residents receiving rights and privileges equal to other Spaniards. Crops were grown on plantations of up to 2,000 hectares called “fincas.” The next several years were prosperous as a result of cocoa, timber, and coffee exports to European countries, especially Spain, the United Kingdom, and Germany. By 1930, Spanish Guinea was the World’s largest exporter of cocoa. After World War II, the Franco government initiated public works and social welfare programs aimed at making Spanish Guinea a model territory (Payne 1987). However, anticolonial sentiments grew as many pushed to break from Spain. In 1968, Equatorial Guinea became independent and subsequently many colonial names were replaced with African ones. For example, Fernando Pó become Bioko Island and Santa Isabel was renamed Malabo (Alvan, Mas-Coma and Carrasco 1996).

Having previously served as Santa Isabel’s mayor, Francisco Macias Nguema was elected the country’s first president through a popular vote. Unfortunately, democracy was short-lived. Within a year, Nguema purged the country’s senior leadership and dissolved opposition parties, declaring himself “president for life” (Maass 2005). Imprisonment, torture, and murder became tools for quelling resistance with thousands sent to Malabo’s infamous Black Beach Prison (Fegley 1981). Purges put the economy into a freefall. By 1974, media outlets and most schools had been shut down and basic services such as electricity and telephone communication became intermittent or unreliable. By the time Nguema was overthrown by his nephew, Lt. Colonel Teodoro Obiang, almost a third of the country’s population had been murdered or forced into exile (McSherry 2006).

Figure 3: Teodoro Obiang, President of Equatorial Guinea.

Elected to replace Nguema, Teodoro Obiang ended much of the violence but took few steps to advance democracy or restore personal freedoms (Figure 3). Prisoners continued to be used as laborers on construction projects while ordinary citizens were subject to searches, extortion payments, and detention at police checkpoints (U.S. Department of State 2002). Although a multiparty system, Obiang’s ruling party and its allies held nearly all seats in the country’s parliament. Fearing challenges from opposition groups, Obaing took measures to consolidate power and safeguard his position, appointing most military officers and police from his hometown and Esangui Clan (African Confidential 2003). Following an attempted coup in 1980, he assumed control of the Supreme Military Council and appointed himself Minister of Defense and Security, Minister of the Economy and Finances, and Minister of Information. In 1982, the country’s constitution was modified to give him the power to make laws by decree and negotiate and ratify treaties.

The Newest Persian Gulf

Spanish government geologists were first to find evidence of oil deposits in the waters off Bioko Island. However, without a national petroleum company or expertise in deep water drilling, no effort was made to develop oil reserves. Compared to countries with land-based oil production and storage facilities, Equatorial Guinea’s crude oil infrastructure is almost entirely off-shore. The principal production area is the Zafiro Field, located 42 miles northwest of Bioko Island near the coastline of Cameroon (Figure 1). In lieu of constructing offshore platforms, engineers at Zafiro use special “Floating Production, Storage, and Offloading” (FPSO) vessels moored directly over wells. Resembling aircraft carriers, FPSOs provide temporary storage before crude oil can be transferred to tankers bound for European, Asian, or American markets (Appel 2012). With oversight provided by the Ministry of Mines and Hydrocarbons, Equatorial Guinea’s oil interests are managed through its national oil company, Nacional de Petróleos de Guinea Equatorial (GEPetrol).

Oil produced in West Africa offers important advantages over Middle Eastern crude. Along with having a lower Sulphur content, crude oil from the Gulf of Guinea is less viscus, making it easy to pump and store. West Africa is also more geographically accessible to American and West European markets and, compared to the Middle East, there are fewer security issues threatening production. In 2005, oil production at Zafiro reached a record high of 375,000 bpd (Oil and Gas Year 2019). Two years later the government took steps to diversify and expand production through the development of natural gas reserves at the nearby Alba Field. Gas produced at Alba is processed at Marathon Oil’s Punta Europa liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant near Malabo’s International Airport. Along with new infrastructure, oil production brought an influx of foreign workers, leading to a housing shortage in Malabo and Bata. To accommodate newcomers, barracks-style housing was constructed for low-skill laborers, shared dormitories for skilled workers, and apartments and houses for managers. To provide greater security, senior company officials were assigned to homes within gated compounds (Figure 4), some featuring pools, tennis courts, and manicured lawns (Appel 2012).

Figure 4: Compound used by expatriate managers in Malabo. Photo by Thomas Wikle.

Corruption, Waste, and Prestige Architecture

The exact amount of oil revenue drained from government coffers will never be known since government spending is a closely guarded secret (Basedan and Lacher 2006). At least some has directly benefitted the president and his family as demonstrated by a lavish presidential palace covering twelve city blocks of downtown Malabo. Several smaller palaces can also be found in the cities of Luba, Bata, Mbini, Evinayong, Micomiseng, and Moka. The President himself has a 90 meter-long “super yacht,” a US $55 million Boeing 737 aircraft equipped with gold-plated restroom fixtures and a US $2.6 million mansion outside of Washington, DC. His son and heir-apparent Teodorin, owns a mansion in Malibu, California and a collection of sports cars (Vines 2009). A few U.S. companies have played a role in hiding of Equatorial Guinea’s oil riches. In 2004, it was revealed that Washington DC-based Riggs Bank assisted with laundering more than US $700 million for Obiang and his family (Obrien 2004).

Most conspicuous has been the impact of oil revenue in reshaping urban landscapes of Malabo and Bata. Prestige architecture is part of the President’s plan to impress visitors and rebrand the country’s international reputation. Hundreds of contracts were awarded to international companies to build apartments, high-rise buildings, government offices, roads, bridges, power plants, and port facilitates (Figure 5). In lieu of using local labor, most construction jobs have gone to foreign workers, many coming from China, Mali, and Senegal. Examples of prestige buildings include the Sede-Edificio de Tesoro (National Treasury) Building and high-rise structures such as the 11-story Hotel Anda China and 14-story GEPetrol Tower (Figure 6). At Malabo’s international airport a new glass and steel terminal serves the increase in traffic, with some passengers arriving on direct flights from Houston, Paris, Amsterdam, Madrid, and Zurich. Along with a special terminal for VIPs, the airport has added a 3,048 meter long runway that can accommodate Boeing 747 aircraft. Other capital projects include a 15,000 seat sport stadium in Malabo, a 36,000 seat sports complex in Bata, and the Malabo campus of the National University of Equatorial Guinea. Designed by a Spanish architectural firm, Malabo’s National Theater of Equatorial Guinea resembles a crescent-shaped moon when viewed from above. New utility systems have also been built. For example, a gas-fired power plant on Bioko Island contributes to a national power grid maintained by Segesa, the state-owned power company.

Figures 5-8: From top left to bottom right: Chinese construction workers in Bata; GEPetrol Building, Malabo; A section of Equatorial Guinea’s highway system in Río Muni; The Sipopo Congress Center in Malabo II. Photos by Thomas Wikle (Figures 5 and 7) and the Embassy of Equatorial Guinea (Figures 6 and 8).

Equatorial Guinea’s largest and most conspicuous “prestige” project is its 2,280 kilometer highway (Figure 7). With up to six lanes in cities such as Malabo, the system encircles Bioko Island. On most days the four-lane expressway connecting Bata with border areas adjacent to Cameroon and Gabon is devoid of vehicles. Projects in outlying areas include a US $12 million seaport facility on Annobón Island that serves large tonnage ships and passenger ferries. Infrastructure projects are part of Obiang’s “Horizon 2020 Development Plan,” that has funneled financial benefits to his family through their partial ownership of companies holding monopolies over building materials.

Another project designed to showcase the country’s modernization is Malabo II, carved out of second-growth rainforest and cocoa plantations along the coastline east of Malabo and protected by its own police force. Completed at a cost of more than US $830 million, the city is built around a large conference facility called the Sipopo Congress Center built to host the 2011 African Union Summit (Human Rights Watch 2011). Designed by a Turkish architectural firm, the Center resembles a large glass box surrounded by colorful aluminum screens (Figure 8). Inside the 13,750 square meter building are three large meeting halls and a restaurant. Also impressive is the Medical Center La Paz which includes a 156 bed hospital and adjacent hotel for the families of patients. The hospital remains underutilized because ordinary citizens are not permitted to use it. As a means of encouraging additional construction, large companies doing business in Equatorial Guinea must agree to construct at least one “prestigious building” in Malabo II (Diouf and Fredericks 2014). An example is Noble Energy’s office and apartment complex that features basketball and tennis courts and its own power generation and water treatment systems. Other new buildings in Malabo II include offices for Sonagas, the state-owned natural gas company and buildings for Africa 24 (news agency) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation. Most ostentatious are the city’s 52 identical presidential palaces, constructed for each African head of state in advance of the 2011 Summit. Each palace complex includes a presidential mansion and adjacent administrative building. Today, most are empty. Not far from Malabo II is the resort town of Sipopo and elegant Sofitel Hotel featuring an artificial beach, nature walk, and championship golf course (Figure 9).

Figure 9: Boardwalk adjacent to the Sofiet Hotel in Sipopo. Photo by Thomas Wikle.

Ciudad de la Paz – Africa’s Brasilia

Obiang’s most recent initiative has drawn even more criticism as being wasteful and unnecessary. After spending millions of petrodollars on government buildings in Malabo and Malabo II, the President rolled out plans for a new capital city. Named Ciudad de la Paz (also called Oyala and Djibloho), the city is 172 kilometers from Río Muni’s Atlantic coast, near the President’s hometown in eastern Río Muni. Having survived several coup attempts including one seaborne assault, Obiang justifies the new city as necessary for protecting himself and his government. Ciudad de la Paz is entirely carved out of rainforest, drawing comparisons to other planned capital cities such as Nigeria’s Abuja and Brazil’s Brasilia.

Infrastructure to support the city’s projected 200,000 residents includes a Chinese built hydroelectric plant and twin 500 meter suspension bridges crossing the Wele River. The city’s principal streets are the Av de la Paz (Avenue of Peace) and the 81-meter wide Av de la Justica (Avenue of Justice), inspired by the expansive Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Plans call for a presidential palace, parliament building, opera house, cathedral, conference center, five-star hotel, and golf course. Space has also been assigned for foreign embassies and high and low rent apartment buildings. Now under construction, the new American University of Central Africa will offer courses in English, Spanish and French for students pursuing degrees in architecture, law, business, petroleum engineering, and medicine. Visitors can drive to the city using the highway system or fly into a new international airport located in the nearby city of Mongomeyen. Projected to be completed in 2020, Ciudad del la Paz’s construction costs consumed half of all government spending in 2018. Along with its high cost, the city has attracted attention from environmentalists concerned about the destruction of rainforest lands and impact to biodiversity.

Paradox of Plenty

Figure 10: Village near Malabo. Photo by Thomas Wikle.

Forming a sharp contrast with office towers and luxury apartment buildings of Malabo and Bata are living conditions outside urban areas. Surviving on subsistence agriculture, much of the rural population lives in makeshift houses constructed from mud, thatch, and discarded materials (Figure 10). Nearly half of Equatorial Guineans are without access to safe drinking water and only one in four newborns are immunized for polio and the measles (Apple 2012b). Despite a windfall provided by the country’s oil production, spending on health care remains low. With long waiting times, hospitals lack basic medical supplies and operate without properly trained staff. Most visits for medical services must be paid in advance. Support for public education hasn’t fared well either with high teacher to student ratios and poorly maintained school facilities. Nearly half of students don’t complete primary school and less than 25% advance to middle school. The poor quality of public education has prompted families to send children to private schools if they have the financial means. With most living without electricity or potable water, the country’s poverty rate stands at 77 percent (Vines 2009).

Despite its importance to the country’s gross domestic product, oil hasn’t provided many jobs since drilling and production are capital rather than labor intensive. Although opportunities are better in larger cities, the country’s petroleum industry employs few local residents with most jobs going to skilled expatriates. Even low paying positions can be difficult to find with drivers, security guards, and other unskilled positions distributed through “job agencies” controlled by the President’s associates (Waiafe-Amoako 2017). To be hired, workers must belong to the President’s political party and may be required to contribute some of their pay to the hiring agency.

Economists characterize a situation where new wealth fails to translate into improvements in the standard of living of most persons as a “paradox of plenty” or “resource curse” (Karl 1997; Auty 2001). Countries afflicted by the curse experience rapid revenue growth through extractive industries that leads to waste, inflation, and corruption. An often-cited example of the curse is an oil boom within the Netherlands during the 1970s that contributed to widespread inflation, declines in the production of manufactured goods, and high levels of unemployment. Subsequent economic downturns affecting oil producing nations such as Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Nigeria have been dubbed “Dutch Disease” (McSherry 2006).

Figure 11: Truck carrying lumber within a rainforest on Bioko Island. Photo by Thomas Wikle.

A byproduct of the curse is that highly profitable sectors of an economy can undercut the development of other industries. For example, when Spanish Guinea became independent in 1968, cocoa production accounted for 75% of the country’s GDP. Within five years of oil being discovered, cocoa production fell 30% (McSherry 2006). Today, only 8% of the country’s land area is used to support the agriculture sector with nearly all basic foodstuffs imported from other countries. Besides petroleum, the country’s major exports include lumber, acyclic alcohols, and wood veneer (OEC 2019). In lieu of contracts going to owned local lumber companies, most logging is done by foreign firms that often overexploit forest resources (Figure 11).

The Need for a Diversified Economy

With Equatorial Guinea’s energy sector dwarfing all other industries, there is a justifiable concern over what the future may bring. Beginning in 2004, production at the Zafiro Field began a steady decline with projections calling for an average of 110,000 bpd being produced between 2018 and 2024 (Rascouet 2018). Given that Equatorial Guinea’s oil reserves are projected to be exhausted by 2035, the development of a dynamic and diversified non-petroleum economy is of paramount importance. Fortunately, the country is endowed with a diverse range of resources including fertile soils, deep water ports, and a large reserve of labor. Coffee and cocoa are still grown but production is a fraction of what it was 50 years ago. The country continues to export forest products and has initiated replanting programs to ensure sustainability. There are also commercially important minerals that could be exploited including copper, bauxite, lead, phosphates, iron, zinc, gold, and diamonds. Another potential area for investment is the country’s commercial fishing industry which is capable of exporting tuna, perch, cod, pike, shark, and crayfish. Presently, industrial capabilities are modest and limited to saw mills and a few plants that produce cement or bleach. A few wholesale and retail operations can be found including factorías managed by Spanish owners. Unfortunately, graft, corruption, and nepotism contribute to an unstable business climate that discourages outside investment. Other problems include property rights that are selectively enforced and cumbersome policies and procedures that create challenges for operating businesses.

Sustainable Ecotourism

Figure 12: Protected part of Monte Alen National Park. Photo by Thomas Wikle.

Given the country’s exceptional biodiversity, ecotourism offers a possibility for diversifying Equatorial Guinea’s economic situation. Unfortunately, the country’s environmental record is checkered with longstanding issues that include deforestation, water pollution, and desertification (Fa 1992). During the 1980s, Obiang signed agreements with British and U.S. companies for dumping toxic wastes on and adjacent to Annobón Island. However, following the discovery of oil he took steps towards protecting the natural environment and developing tourism by creating protected areas that now encompass 19% of the country’s land area. A new federal agency was also created to manage protected areas, called the Instituto Nacional de Desarrollo Forest y Manejo del Sistema de Áreas Protegodas (National Forest Development Institute and Management of the Protected Areas System). Today, the list of protected areas includes three national parks: Monte Alen and Altos de Nsork National Parks on the mainland and Pico Basilé National Park in the northern part of Bioko Island (Figure 12). There are also two national monuments and two scientific areas. Located within an hour’s drive from Bata, Monte Alen’s 1400 square kilometers provides habitat for more than 100 mammal species including elephant, gorilla, and chimpanzee. Despite receiving federal protection, Equatorial Guinea’s natural areas are subject to significant threats, especially roadbuilding that has enabled logging operations to push deeply into protected areas (Figure 13).

Figure 13: Logging road within a rainforest near Monte Alen National Park. Photo by Thomas Wikle.

Another problem has been the expansion of illegal hunting that takes place despite a 2007 presidential decree banning the consumption of bush meat. Bush meat is a symbol of wealth and a delicacy often preferred over chicken and pork. Animals taken by commercial bush meat hunters include the blue duiker, pangolin, porcupine, and mandrill. On Bioko Island, the bright orange and maroon colors of the red colobus monkey make it an easy target for hunters. Forested areas have also been impacted by the construction of hydroelectric dams and power lines. At Monte Alen National Park, an anticipated increase in ecotourism has yet to materialize and today, the park’s dilapidated lodge has fallen into disuse (Figure 14). Guides continue leading visitors into the park’s forested areas but overhunting makes it rare to see chimpanzee or other larger primates. Another barrier to expanding ecotourism is a requirement for most foreigners (except US citizens) to obtain a visa.

Figure 14: Abandoned park lodge in Monte Alen National Park. Photo by Thomas Wikle.


Not long ago, Equatorial Guinea was little-known backwater with a dismal human rights record. Despite having pristine beaches and exceptional biodiversity, the country drew few international visitors. With a struggling economy, the country exported little outside of a few agricultural products. Virtually overnight, the situation changed with billions of petrodollars raising the country’s per capita gross domestic product to a level matching developed countries such as Italy. But rather than make investments in social welfare, oil revenue was laundered through overseas banks or funneled towards infrastructure projects designed to enhance the country’s international standing and reputation. In total, nearly 80% of the country’s oil income was siphoned-off for personal use or spent on building projects, many with limited social value. As an additional measure, many firms doing business in Equatorial Guinea such as banks, oil companies, and international hotel chains were pressured into constructing their own “prestige” buildings. Unsatisfied with the country’s two major urban areas, the President commissioned new cities, carved out of plantation lands and rainforest. Today, there are two Equatorial Guineas. One has gleaming office towers, lavish hotels, and stately government buildings that convey a sense of progress and hope. But another lurks in the shadows and along edges of the former. Most of the country’s citizens are here, living much as they did before the discovery of oil.


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