A murderous dictator, his rapper son and a $700m-a-year oil boom

The grounding of a mystery plane, allegedly carrying mercenaries, has focused attention on the West African state of Equatorial Guinea and its despotic leader. Declan Walsh reports on a would-be coup that sounds like a plot from 'Dallas'
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The Independent Online

On the steamy shores of West Africa, oil seldom brings good tidings. Equatorial Guinea, the nugget-sized nation at the heart of last week's bungled apparent coup attempt, is no exception. A despotic leader, his playboy-rapper son, scheming relatives and thousands of American oil men are the characters of a twisted plot that reads like Dallas set in equatorial Africa. And although attention has focused on 67 alleged mercenaries arrested in Zimbabwe, a far greater intrigue swirls around the dictatorial regime of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

On the steamy shores of West Africa, oil seldom brings good tidings. Equatorial Guinea, the nugget-sized nation at the heart of last week's bungled apparent coup attempt, is no exception. A despotic leader, his playboy-rapper son, scheming relatives and thousands of American oil men are the characters of a twisted plot that reads like Dallas set in equatorial Africa. And although attention has focused on 67 alleged mercenaries arrested in Zimbabwe, a far greater intrigue swirls around the dictatorial regime of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

Mr Obiang, who came to power by overthrowing his uncle and shooting him, has survived 25 years in power by stuffing the government with relatives, torturing opponents and rigging elections. His would be a perfect banana republic, if it had bananas. Instead it has oil - lots of it.

Mr Obiang's iron fist turned to gold in the mid 1990s when US oil firms made massive offshore discoveries. Overnight, the former Spanish colony shot from poverty-stricken obscurity to fabulous wealth, becoming known as the "Kuwait of Africa". Large oil companies, led by ExxonMobil, invested $6bn (£3.3bn) in operations that now pump 350,000 barrels of oil a day.

More than 3,000 US oil workers are manning the pumps, and business is so brisk there are direct flights from Houston to the island's capital, Malabo.

Equatorial Guinea has become Africa's third-largest oil producer, after Nigeria and Angola, and its fastest growing economy.

"The oil has been for us like the manna that the Jews ate in the desert," Mr Obiang told CBS last year.

The vast majority of Guineans, however, have yet to taste that sweet bread.

The majority of the vast state oil revenues - up to $700m this year - has been salted into foreign bank accounts. Many are controlled by Mr Obiang. Most of the country's 500,000 people scrape by on $2 a day, and human development indicators have barely budged since oil was struck. "There is no evidence that any of the oil wealth has gone to the people," said Sarah Wykes of the lobby group Global Witness, which later this month will release a report linking the Obiang regime to large-scale corruption and drug trafficking.

The US oil companies appear unconcerned by the allegations. Last year ExxonMobil threw a party in Washington in Mr Obiang's honour - one year after he held presidential elections that gave him 97 per cent of the vote. The result suggested a slight fall in popularity over the previous poll, in which he won 99.2 per cent.

Western business has followed on the heels of the Texan oil men with gusto.

Only 15 years ago Malabo had just one hotel with no electricity, food or running water. Two cars in the street was a traffic jam, and the phone directory had just two pages, listing subscribers by their first name.

The airport terminal was a tin-roofed shack that received just one international flight.

Today, however, the French have built a mobile phone network, sports utility vehicles whizz through the streets, and several international carriers service the smart new airport terminal. Prostitutes clamour around the gates of several new hotels. The US re-opened its embassy in October last year, following an eight-year closure in protest at torture and other human rights abuses.

At around the same time the Dutch carrier KLM renamed one of its planes after Mr Obiang, to mark the opening of the new airport terminal. "It was like calling a plane Pol Pot," said one analyst.

A campaign against US involvement in Equatorial Guinea is building. The influential US news programme 60 Minutes criticised the pact between Mr Obiang and the oil companies last autumn. The latest State Department human rights report, released last month, cataolgued an array of police torture, arbitrary arrest and detention and the failure of the courts to administer justice.

In Washington, the FBI has started investigating a $700m bank account at the Riggs Bank, of which Mr Obiang is apparently the main signatory. One bank employee has already lost his job over the scandal.

But the greatest threat to Mr Obiang's dictatorial dominance comes from his own family. The president has been sick, reportedly from prostate cancer, and tensions have arisen among the ruling clan over his succession plans. Some are worried over apparent plans to hand power to his son Teodorin - a government minister, rap music entrepreneur and international playboy.

The 30-something Teodorin parties in Rio de Janeiro, does business in Hollywood and lives at five-star hotels in Paris, where he drives in Bentley and Lamborghini cars. Some years ago he invested several hundred thousand dollars to start his own rap label, TNO Entertainment, standing for Teodorin Nguema Obiang. It apparently failed to release any records, but according to Hollywood gossip he has had a relationship with the American rap star Eve.

Teodorin is also fond of female company from other countries - according to one associate, he once turned up for a meeting in Paris accompanied by several Russian women. He is a keen property investor, owning a $6m mansion in Bel Air.

But when he tried to buy a multi-million dollar apartment in New York - in a building where the arms superdealer Adnan Khashoggi once lived - the board of management rejected his application.

His frequent absences have called into question his ability to run the Ministry of Infrastructure and Public Works, although he did head up his father's extraordinarily successful 2002 election campaign.

The president is reportedly worried about his son's partying and has appealed to confidantes to help temper his wilder excesses - presumably to help pave the way for a leadership succession. This worries Mr Obiang's relatives, who hold the top positions in the government and military. In particular it has bothered the president's brother, Armengol Ondo Nguema, the national security chief.

According to documents obtained by The Independent, Armengol has close links with Nick du Toit - the 48-year-old South African mercenary who last week admitted to helping plan the putative coup.

Both men are shareholders in Triple Options, a joint venture company established last October to provide "security services" to Mr Obiang, but which the government now says is implicated in the plot to topple him.

Africa sleuths remain mystified about who is behind the coup plot - if there ever was one at all. Suspicions have been raised by Mr du Toit's appearance on national television to admit his complicity in the apparent coup, only hours after the plane of 70 mercenaries was arrested in Harare.

Appearing relaxed and composed, he enjoyed a more peaceful fate than most failed putchists in Equatorial Guinea, who might expect to have their toenails removed over several days before being allowed to speak in public.

Mr du Toit said he planned to force Mr Obiang into exile, allowing the opposition leader Severo Moto Nsa to seize power. Mr Moto, who lives in exile in Spain, has denied any involvement in the plot.

The task of finding the culprit is complicated by the almost universal unpopularity of the Obiang regime. It is involved in high-profile border disputes with neighbouring Gabon and Cameroon over remote and possibly oil-rich areas; and most of the opposition is jailed or in exile.

Last month an American human rights lobby group put Mr Obiang at sixth place in its gallery of the world's 10 worst dictators. In 2002, for instance, he had more than 70 political opponents jailed. Some were hung in positions designed to break their bones, and at least two died. Those who have not fled into exile in Spain have been detained at the notorious Black Beach prison, where opponents say they have been tortured by Obiang family members. "If you've ever seen a person limp on both legs, you know you're in Equatorial Guinea," said the former US ambassador to Equatorial Guinea, John Bennett.

The government is also tainted by allegations of drug trafficking. In 1997 a former Information Minister, Santos Pasqual Bikomo, was arrested in Madrid with 14 kilos of heroin, allegedly from Pakistan. Currently serving a nine-year sentence, he alleges that other government figures were involved in the drugs trade.

According to research by Global Witness, which specialises in investigating oil corruption, at least 10 Equatorial Guineans travelling on diplomatic passports have been arrested on drugs trafficking charges since the late 1980s.

The independent press has been beaten into silence and even the foreign press is not safe. A local correspondent for the French news service AFP was jailed for eight days in November last year after writing "scurrilous" stories.

Instead, the state media bring greasy sycophancy to new depths. Mr Obiang has "all power over men and things", state radio said last year, adding: "He can decide to kill ... because it is God himself, with whom he is in permanent contact, who gives him this strength."

US interest in censoring Mr Obiang's abuses has waned in tandem with the flood of investment. For example, after the sham 2002 elections the European Union issued a stern condemnation. In contrast the US State Department reaction was notably muted.

The US increasingly sees West Africa as a "safe" source of oil, far from the Muslim world and OPEC price controlling countries. Sub-Saharan African already supplies 15 per cent of US imports, which the Bush administration hopes will rise to 25 per cent in the coming decade.

Other countries have more mixed relations. The South African president Thabo Mbeki recently strengthened relations, and the Spanish foreign minister Ana Palacio visited in November last year.

However yesterday Equatorial Guinea threatened to recall its ambassador to Spain over allegations the Spanish government was behind the coup plot.

The 67 alleged mercenaries detained in Zimbabwe are due to make their first court appearance today. Led by the former SAS commando and Old Etonian, Simon Mann, they are accused of acting like characters from the Frederick Forsyth novel, The Dogs of War - a thriller about a mining executive who hires a group of mercenaries to overthrow an African government and install a puppet dictator so he can mine platinum. But the alleged mercenaries give a different explanation - that they en route to Eastern Congo to protect an unnamed mine as part of a legitimate contract. "It is all a dreadful misunderstanding," said Charles Burrow, an executive with the Channel Islands-registered company that owns their impounded Boeing 727 plane.

However Africa Confidential, a respected newsletter, says that they had in fact stopped to pick up weapons for a planned coup. According to a quoted contract, the team had already paid $180,000 to Zimbabwean army officers for a consignment of AK-47 guns, mortars and 30,000 rounds of ammunition.

Whatever the truth, when their plane landed in Harare their plans went disastrously wrong. The coming trial may shed further light on their bizarre adventure and -- just perhaps -- on the intrigues of a tiny oil-rich yet fragile nation 2,000 miles away.