The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 73/No. 16      April 27, 2009

 
N.Y. conference discusses
Equatorial Guinea today
(feature article)
 
BY MARTÍN KOPPEL  
HEMPSTEAD, New York—A three-day international conference at Hofstra University on Long Island was a forum for discussion and debate on a wide range of topics about Equatorial Guinea—its history, economic development, languages, natural resources, literature and art, biodiversity, and ethnic composition and conflicts. The event, held here April 2-4, was titled “Between Three Continents: Rethinking Equatorial Guinea on the 40th Anniversary of Its Independence from Spain.”

Equatorial Guinea, a Central African country of about 1 million inhabitants, gained its independence from Spanish colonial rule in October 1968. For 11 years the people of Equatorial Guinea faced a brutal dictatorship under the first president, Francisco Macías, who in 1979 was overthrown by young Guinean military officers led by Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the current president. Since the mid-1990s the exploitation of the country’s newly discovered oil and natural gas reserves has turned it into the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa.

In what was one of the least economically developed nations in Africa, the government is today using some of the revenues from the labor of those who work in the oil fields to begin to create the nationwide infrastructure necessary for industrial development—such as paved roads, electrification, cellular phone networks, safe water distribution, primary health care, and the national university. Equatorial Guinea remains marked by the contradictions between this rapid transformation of production and the legacy of millennia of economic activity based on hunting, fishing, and subsistence agriculture, distorted by subjugation to slave traders and colonial domination.

The Hofstra conference was the largest such event on Equatorial Guinea to be held in the United States, drawing about 150 people from several countries. Among them were some 30 Equatorial Guineans, including a dozen or more resident in that country. Many participants were professors from across the United States and Spain, with a few from other European countries and Canada. A number of Hofstra students attended some sessions. The conference coordinators were Benita Sampedro, professor of Romance languages and literatures at Hofstra University, and Baltasar Fra-Molinero, a professor of Spanish at Bates College in Maine.

Support for the conference came from Spanish government agencies as well as a number of university institutions.  
 
Diverse participation
The conference organizers had worked to include diverse political forces in the program. A majority of participants were liberal and social democratic opponents of the Equatorial Guinean government, including a number of Guineans living abroad, mostly in Spain or the United States. Some of these currents consider the government today a dictatorship barely distinguishable from the reign of terror under Macías. Others disagreed, expressing a variety of viewpoints.

Among the participants were representatives of the Equatorial Guinean government who joined and debated the issues as panelists and from the floor. It made for a rich and often intense three days of exchanges and debates. Conference organizers set a tone of civil discussion throughout the event.

The heart of the conference, which was conducted in both Spanish and English, was the multiple panel discussions on diverse themes, including a special round table of Guinean writers. Four new documentary films on Equatorial Guinea were screened, and an exhibit by Guinean artists was presented, along with musical performances.

A book table organized by the university bookstore offered numerous hard-to-find titles by Guinean writers, from poetry and novels to books on history and politics. It also included several titles published by Pathfinder Press such as Capitalism and the Transformation of Africa: Reports from Equatorial Guinea and books by world leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Thomas Sankara.

In conjunction with the Hofstra event, speaking engagements were organized for 10 Equatorial Guinean writers at eight other U.S. campuses including Spelman College in Atlanta, the University of Missouri in Columbia, Harvard University, Hunter College, and New York University.

Panels at the conference ranged widely in topic: “Equatorial Guinea in Historical Perspective,” “From the Zoo to Biodiversity,” “Mapping Languages in Equatorial Guinea,” “The Politics of Offshore Oil/Gas Production in West Africa,” and “Identity and Literature in Equatorial Guinea Today,” to name a few.  
 
Anticolonial resistance
Several panels took up the history and place of the ethnic groups that make up the population of Equatorial Guinea: Fang, Bubi, Fernandino, Annobonese, Ndowe, and others. Speakers provided a wealth of facts on the history of resistance to European and Arab slave traders and colonialists. Ibrahim Sundiata from Brandeis University, for example, focused on a series of Bubi revolts in the early 1900s against efforts to force them to work on the Spanish cacao plantations on the island of Fernando Poo (now Bioko), which led to the importation of Nigerian laborers.

Other panelists described the independence struggle that began to develop after World War II. Eugenio Nkogo Ondó, a participant in that struggle now living in Spain, pointed to the role of Guinean independence leaders Acacio Mañé and Enrique Nvó, assassinated in the late 1950s by colonialist forces.

Some speakers focused on current social questions. Damaso Mitogo Ondo Ayekaba, from the University of Washington in Seattle, spoke about the importance of the fight for economic and social equality for women in Equatorial Guinea. Others pointed to struggles by Guineans in Spain against anti-immigrant attacks. That theme was captured in a poem by Francisco Zamora Loboch, a Guinean writer living in Spain, titled “How to be Black and not die in Aravaca,” referring to the 1992 racist murder of a Dominican immigrant in Madrid. Another panelist was writer Remei Sipi Mayo, a founder of Ewaiso Ipola, an organization of African immigrant women in Spain.

In a panel on languages in Equatorial Guinea, John Lipski of Pennsylvania State University spoke about the use of the Guinean dialect of Spanish in literature and challenged the view that it is “bad Spanish.”  
 
Debate over ‘human rights’ offensive
At the political center of the conference was the debate over charges of human rights abuses and corruption leveled against the Equatorial Guinean government by U.S. and European liberal forces organized in Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other groups along with several of the Guinean writers living abroad. Opponents of the Obiang government, in their overwhelming majority, looked to U.S., Spanish, and other imperialist governments, their well-funded nongovernmental organizations, and giant international oil monopolies operating in the country to put pressure on the government in Equatorial Guinea to become more “democratic.”

Neither the Guinean oppositionists nor their foreign supporters had a monolithic position, however. Some argued that there has been one continuous dictatorship in Equatorial Guinea since 1968. Others acknowledged that the Obiang government is qualitatively different from the Macías dictatorship, and some expressed the view that there has been significant progress in recent years in curbing abuses.

Opposition forces who spoke generally called for imperialist-imposed “transparency” and focused on charges that the Obiang family is stealing most of the government revenue from the oil and gas extraction and that little if anything has changed in conditions of life for ordinary Guineans. Various opposition figures abroad, such as Severo Moto, have long been implicated in plots to overthrow the Obiang government with imperialist backing and get a piece of the oil-related wealth for themselves.

Some of the opposition forces that spoke acknowledged that important infrastructure projects are under way, but insisted that a mere pittance is being devoted to improvements that affect the lives of most Guineans and that they are taking unnecessary years to complete.

These arguments were answered by the government officials and others participating in the conference. In the opening plenary session, Purificación AngŁe Ondo, Equatorial Guinea’s ambassador to the United States, underscored the changes from the brutal Macías years, when churches and schools were closed down and she herself, a schoolteacher, was among those imprisoned. She defended the progress and achievements in her country since then, while acknowledging that they still faced many problems regarding “the economy, human rights, transparency,” and corruption, which she said the government was dealing with by working with various international agencies.

At a well-attended panel titled “Challenges and Opportunities for Improved Protection and Promotion of Human Rights in Equatorial Guinea,” Marisé Castro from Amnesty International, Lisa Misol from Human Rights Watch, and Ken Hurwitz of Open Society Justice Initiative gave remarks that were particularly arrogant in portraying Washington, Madrid, and other imperialist powers as a force for progress against African governments like the one in Equatorial Guinea. They presented themselves as the voices for the victims of abuse within Equatorial Guinea who couldn’t speak for themselves.

Two other human rights campaigners sharing the platform, Tutu Alicante, a U.S.-based Guinean lawyer and founder of the antigovernment group EG Justice, and Peter Rosenblum of Columbia Law School, felt obliged to take some distance. Rosenblum called attention to the dangers of “cultural imperialism,” while Alicante noted that to some the words being spoken could sound like “the voice of colonialism.”

Panelist Agustín Nze Nfumu, the Equatorial Guinean ambassador in the United Kingdom, took issue with them all. Nze, who was jailed under the Macías regime and exiled in Cameroon until 1979, said conditions had qualitatively changed for the better for the people of Equatorial Guinea. He helped defuse the charged atmosphere, saying his government welcomed discussion of the issues raised. He said he was not offended by the remarks made by other panelists. Conceding that there were many problems the government was trying to address, he insisted that such problems would be dealt with by Equatorial Guineans, not by others pretending to speak for them.

At the panel on “The Politics of Offshore Oil/Gas Production in West Africa,” professors Hannah Appel and Joseph Kraus from the United States and Alicia Campos from Madrid raised the themes of the “resource curse” and “corporate social responsibility.” The argument underlying these catchphrases is that the corrupt leaders of African oil-producing nations—unlike the imperialist democracies of North America and Europe—are incapable of using oil wealth for the benefit of all, and that they need to be “held accountable” by enlightened oil company officials and imperialist governments.

Other panelists, speaking later that evening, presented different views. Sara Nso, a Guinean-Spanish researcher, noted that the low level of labor productivity and absence of agricultural development are not the result of an “oil curse.” There are much more long-term challenges, going back well before the discovery of oil there.

Nicolas Donner, a doctoral student at the Sorbonne University in Paris, rejected the terms “oil curse,” “good governance,” and “transparency” as “maxims of the Western order” that hypocritically blame African governments for social inequalities while ignoring the fact that U.S. and European economic development exists in large part because many in Africa live in poverty.

Francisca Tatchouop Belope, vice minister of economy in Equatorial Guinea, cited facts about how the government is using oil revenues to put in place a modern infrastructure capable of raising labor productivity, adding that “we know we have many deficiencies. We are seeking assistance to resolve them” from other governments and international institutions.  
 
Example of Cuba’s internationalism
Speaking on a panel April 3, Mary-Alice Waters, coauthor of Capitalism and the Transformation of Africa, gave a presentation on “The transformation of production and class relations in Equatorial Guinea, and the importance of Cuba’s internationalist example in Africa.” She said the development of oil extraction in Equatorial Guinea has unfolded “in a blink of the eye, historically speaking.” Today resources from the exploitation of hydrocarbons “are being used—whatever the limitations—to extend roads, primary health care, electrification, and education.” To give a historical perspective for the speed of these changes, she asked, “How long did it take to get paved roads and running water and indoor plumbing in many parts of the United States?” noting that these were largely unknown in rural America when she was growing up.

What is most important historically about Equatorial Guinea today, Waters noted, is that capitalism and a modern capitalist class structure—including a bourgeoisie and a working class—have begun to emerge, as in other parts of the world at different historical junctures. Recognition of that historical and social reality does not make one a partisan of capitalism. “To the contrary. One cannot effectively chart a course to fight for a world free of class exploitation” without understanding them, she said.

Waters highlighted the role of the Cuban doctors, teachers, electricians, and other internationalist volunteers working in Equatorial Guinea today, often in the most isolated and poorest areas of the country where no doctors have ever lived before. The men and women who set this example of proletarian solidarity “are products of Cuba’s socialist revolution,” she said. “And without the example of that revolution it would be much more difficult for any of us to see the way forward.”

The interest among many conference participants in the points raised by Waters was seen in the 86 Pathfinder books and pamphlets they picked up during the three-day gathering. These included 36 copies of Capitalism and the Transformation of Africa, as well as titles by revolutionary leaders Thomas Sankara, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, and others—in Spanish, English, and French.  
 
Round table of Guinean writers
The largest conference session was a round table of nine Guinean authors, held at the Cervantes Institute in Manhattan. After some of the panelists implied by their remarks that the government of their country prevented them from living there, Ambassador AngŁe took the floor. She remarked that, after being jailed by the Macías dictatorship, she herself had spent many years in exile in Gabon. During this time, however, her one goal was “how to get back to my country.” She asked each of the writers declaring themselves to be exiles what they were demanding of the government. What would have to change for them to return?

This question provoked varying responses by the panelists. Francisco Zamora Loboch said that as a journalist he could not work in Equatorial Guinea until there was complete freedom of the press. Juan Manuel Davies Eiso said he would be happy if his books could be printed and sold there (there are no printing presses or bookstores in Equatorial Guinea). Donato Ndongo Bidyogo, probably the best-known Guinean author, said he could not return without electricity by which to work at night. The responses effectively exposed the pretenses of the “exiles” that they lived abroad only because of government persecution.

One of the panelists, well-known writer María Nsue AngŁe, who lives in Equatorial Guinea, said she hoped a gathering like the Hofstra conference could be held in her country.

At one of the panels on the final day, Anacleto Oló Mibuy, an anthropologist who is an official in Equatorial Guinea’s ministry of culture, addressing the Guineans present, announced, “We invite all of you to attend a similar conference that will be held in Equatorial Guinea.”

The civil debates and exchanges continued right to the end. The final banquet heard remarks by the conference organizers, Guinean writers, and the Guinean ambassadors to Washington, London, and the United Nations, and concluded with music and dancing.  
 
 
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