Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu © Gulf News

A Reuters journalist visiting Equatorial Guinea described the place saying “the jungle creeps into cocoa plantations … The jobless wander about aimlessly and rats dash across hospital wards. Most people live on wild fruit and vegetables, and a packet of cigarettes costs a week’s average salary”. That was in 1979, the year Francisco Macias Nguema – “Mad Uncle Macias” – was overthrown and executed by his nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been the country’s dictator ever since.

Even by the standards of African dictators of the Cold War era, Uncle Macias, who took over power in 1968, had been special. He had 10 members of his first, dozen-strong cabinet, tortured and executed. It is said that about 100,000 – a third of the population of the country then – either fled or were killed by Macias. According to Adam Roberts, author of The Wonga Coup, among the many titles Macias gave himself were ‘Great Maestro of Popular Education, Science and Traditional Culture’ and ‘The Only Miracle of Equatorial Guinea”. Macias was the kind of leader who spoilt the country’s relations even with its superpower patron, the Soviet Union. When in 1976 a Soviet plane crashed into a mountain near Malabo, the capital, killing all on board, Macias refused to release the bodies until a compensation of $5 million was paid. This, he said, was “due to the damage caused to the mountain”.

So when Obiang deposed his uncle, not many tears were shed. Macias, along with six acolytes, were sentenced to death by firing squad at the country’s infamous Black Beach prison. Such was the terror Macias had induced that the local soldiers refused to shoot at him, fearing his “spirit would return as a leopard” to haunt them. He was eventually executed by Moroccan mercenaries, who were now part of new dictator Obiang’s personal security detail.

Obiang retained much of the terrible security apparatus of his uncle. Roberts says that the famous novelist Frederick Forsyth described Obiang saying he was the “inflicter of many horrors of his uncle”. Forsyth should know: he was widely believed to be a backer of a 1973 coup attempt against Macias by British and white South African mercenaries. The coup attempt failed but Forsyth made a fortune from a novel he wrote in 1974 based on the incident – The Dogs of War, an endlessly entertaining read that has sold millions of copies.

Throughout the 1980s, no one gave much thought to the wretched country in the armpit of Africa. However, Equatorial Guinea was always suspected of holding oil deposits. It was only in 1991 that meaningful quantities were found by a small oil firm from Texas called Walter International. And where there is oil, there are vested, foreign interests.

Born in 1942, Obiang has ruled the country with an iron fist ever since he deposed and executed his uncle in 1979. He received military training in the former colonial power – Spain – and later on also studied in the United States. He was seen as one of his uncle’s main enforcers, eventually becoming head of Black Beach Prison, notorious for the severe torture meted out to those unfortunate enough to end up there. Obiang refers to himself as ‘El Jefe’ (The Boss). The US embassy was closed in 1993, after Obiang accused the ambassador of practicing witchcraft. However, with oil flowing ever more thickly, things got better eventually, with then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice describing Obiang as “a good friend”. Since the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi in October, 2011, Obiang has been the world’s longest-ruling non-royal head of state.

Equatorial Guinea is today the third-largest oil producer in the region after Nigeria and Angola. It has a population of only about 750,000. Producing more than 400,000 barrels per day, it should have ensured a high standard of living for its people. But, a vast majority of them continue to languish in extreme poverty and disease, while a small cabal of well-connected elite has become obscenely rich. One such specimen is Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the dictator’s son, who became famous for buying a $35 million mansion in Malibu, California. French prosecutors, meanwhile, seized millions of dollars worth of sports cars Obiang junior kept in Paris, including 7 Ferraris.

Internationally, few had heard of President Obiang until 2004, when an astonishing, almost comical episode unfolded. British mercenary Simon Mann — backed by wealthy, right-wing businessmen in Britain and South Africa — tried to topple and eliminate Obiang. He planned to storm the oil-rich kleptocracy with about 69 other mercenaries under his command, depose Obiang and replace him with a puppet, Severo Moto, to be flown in from the Canary Islands. Moto would in turn grant Mann and his cronies lucrative oil deals and security contracts. The plot was almost totally lifted from Forsyth’s thriller, The Dogs of War.

The coup was foiled even before it began, when Mann and his men were nabbed as their chartered aircraft made a stopover in Zimbabwe en route to Equatorial Guinea. Mann spent four years in jail in Harare and almost two more years in the aforementioned Black Beach Prison before being released in 2009 following a surprise pardon from Obiang.

In a 2011 interview for Weekend Review, I asked Mann how someone as experienced as him could possibly hope to get away with knocking off an entire republic in this day and age. He said, “I did think that I could pull it off. I really did. Put simply, the fact that we had succeeded in Angola and Sierra Leone [where his security firm had carried out military operations against rebels at the behest of the governments of the two countries in the 1990s] clouded my judgement. Because in those places we were very successful, partly because we had a mindset that if you kept going and were bold enough, it would work. Besides, I had the feeling that Spain and South Africa were backing the coup…”

Incredibly, Obiang pardoned the man who wanted to topple him. After his pardon, Mann has travelled to Equatorial Guinea three times and met with the despot, who invited him through the country’s ambassador to Britain. He told Weekend Review, “I thought it would be a nice thing to do … this guy whom I set out to overthrow has given me pardon, and I thought that is an amazing thing. The least I could do was thank him.

“We had a long meeting through a translator. We talked about a lot of things. He was a prisoner under his uncle. It helped that he could understand how it felt.”

This column aims to profile personalities who made the news once but have now faded from the spotlight.

What he said:

“He’s a criminal and we don’t have relations with criminal b------s.”

Obiang to Channel Four News in June 2008

“Cannibalism exists, but not in my country.”

Obiang to foreign journalists in 2008

“There are some who say that having oil is a curse, but I say, no, it’s a blessing.”

Obiang in an interview in 2014

“They call me a dictator.”

Obiang to foreign journalists in February, 2014