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UK Politics

When naive good intentions meet corrupt kleptocracy

Tagging along on an all-party trip to Equatorial Guinea, Ian Birrell saw how reality can quickly be forgotten

Having been flown over on the luxurious presidential jet, we sat for a while in a hotel bar, watching a local politician knock back fine champagne. Eventually, our party of hungry British MPs ordered pizza and wine, only to be whisked off almost immediately in a motorcade of black limousines to see the country’s Prime Minister.

After a short journey, escorted by security men in shades and police cars with sirens blaring, we arrived at what we were told was the foreign affairs department. There was no one working at the dozens of new desks in the Chinese-built office; somehow, this fitted our faintly surreal adventure.

We were told to wait on black leatherette sofas in a stuffy upstairs room. One MP complained about the lack of air conditioning; another fumed that our hotel – which seemed fairly decent to me – was the worst she had ever stayed in. After 40 minutes of idle chat with our charming minder, we were led off to meet the PM.

Cameras clicked as Nadine Dorries, the leader of the British delegation, said her team was honoured to be visiting the country. “We are here to dispel some of the myths about Equatorial Guinea and also with humility to offer you help to avoid the mistakes we have made,” she said. It was a spiel I had heard several times already, in earlier meetings.

“We are glad you are here and hope you will discover what is good and what is bad about our country,” replied Ignacio Milam Tang, the clearly-nervous PM. “Our main goal is to develop the country in all ways, not just internally but morally in building a better society.”

It was, of course, all utter guff. But fascinating to witness from my front-row seat on a parliamentary delegation to a pariah state. And what a strange trip it turned out to be.

I was asked to tag along last year with the first parliamentary visit to Equatorial Guinea, thanks in part to my interest in African music. I readily accepted. The trip offered a unique insight into one of the world’s most grotesque kleptocracies, which discourages journalists from prying into a land where oil riches mean per capita wealth exceeds Britain’s but three-quarters of the 675,000 citizens live on less than a dollar a day.

I saw at first hand the corruption, the poverty, the repression of a country run by a President alleged to pocket £40m a day in energy revenues. Yet as the ruling Obiang family grows ever richer, it craves respectability, so has spent a fortune creating Orwellian illusions of normality, with Potemkin hotels and hospitals barred to the general public, and is working hard to woo the international community.

So it is holding African Union summits, hosting football tournaments, sponsoring international scientific prizes and spending huge sums on public relations to push the case that one of the most ruthless, repressive and repulsively greedy regimes in the world is reforming.

I was invited by Greg Wales, a British businessman associated with the infamous “Wonga coup” attempt to overthrow President Obiang (he denies any involvement), who, in a bizarre twist, was later hired to promote the regime. He was aided by a former spokesman for the Countryside Alliance, who praised a country he had never visited from the moment we left the airport. The agenda was clear: to sell the message that Equatorial Guinea was a place for British businesses to invest.

At a series of meetings with officials, the same well-drilled lines were repeated. It was seductive stuff – if you didn’t know the reality. The MPs were fed nonsense about the openness of the supposed democracy and given a very partial view of the country as they were whisked from meeting to meeting. They never broke out of their gilded bubble.

Yet the trip did not go according to plan. To begin with, Ms Dorries and her fellow Tories Steve Baker and Caroline Nokes entered naive discussions with their hosts about the “dynamic democracy”. At one point, Ms Nokes even asked whether politicians or the people drove political reform in a country that routinely jails and tortures dissidents.

Slowly but surely, however, they saw the Hermes handbags and jewel-encrusted watches on the arms of their hosts, and began to clock the country for what it is. Their frustrations boiled over at the tense meeting with Mr Tang. After he told them the President was not going to meet them as planned, the peeved British politicians finally raised the issue of human rights, leading to icy accusations that they did not understand “the African way of doing things”.

Over dinner afterwards, there was a furious row after Ms Dorries, to her credit, told Mr Wales they would not write a “whitewash” report. He responded angrily that they had been patronising to the local politicians. Upon arriving home, both sides rushed out wildly divergent reports on the state of the country. An offer of £20,000 to one of the MPs to lure out colleagues was rebuffed.

It was riveting to observe this diplomatic disaster. But although it backfired, the regime did get one thing it wanted: propaganda. I saw footage of the visit on the state-controlled broadcaster, while official reports spoke glowingly of an all-party group of 10 British MPs.

This is why politicians should be wary of rushing to grab those first-class flights and fine hotels – there really is no such thing as a free trip.