Business, Finance & Economics

Slippery constitutional changes in Equatorial Guinea

The Equatorial Guinea president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, addresses the 66th UN General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Sept. 21, 2011.
Credit: Emmanuel Dunand

The recent demise of Muammar Gaddafi means that Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema now holds the questionable distinction of being Africa’s longest-standing leader.

Obiang led a bloody coup to seize the presidency from his uncle in 1979. He had his uncle shot by firing squad and has held power ever since.

This weekend a national referendum was held on a series of constitutional amendments. The one the president’s men want to emphasize is the creation of term limits, meaning that any future president will only be allowed to serve two consecutive seven-year terms in office.

So far so democratic, except there are a series of other amendments that rather undermine the headline one.

First up, it is by no means clear that the constitutional amendment will be retrospective, which means that when his current term ends in 2016 Obiang might stand again for the first of his two constitutionally allowed terms. This is a trick that Yoweri Museveni pulled off in Uganda, changing the constitution and setting the clock back to zero.

That Obiang hopes to cloak his autocratic regime in the garb of democracy rather than bring about any real change or reform is indicated by
another one of the amendments: to remove age limits on presidential candidates. Obiang is now 69, and would have bee prevented from running after the age of 75 under the old constitution.

A third amendment is the creation of an appointed vice president position with much speculation that the new post will be a way for Obiang to bring in his son Teodoro Obiang Mangue, 41.

Which neatly brings us to why Obiang is so keen to cling to power. Equatorial Guinea is an island in a sea of oil, and despite its tiny size is now sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest oil producer (after Angola and Nigeria).

The Obiang family has benefitted from the oil wealth while the average citizen remains mired in poverty and fear. Obiang, Jr., owns a $31 million Malibu property, dozens of sports cars and millions of dollars worth of Michael Jackson memorabillia, according to court documents alleging corruption filed by the US government.

In 2008 he commissioned the design of a luxury $380 million superyacht, but when the plans were uncovered his father’s government said he would not be going through with the purchase.


More from GlobalPost: Do African leaders support democracy?

Related Stories