By Bryan Schiller
On the western coast of Central Africa, just north of the Equator, lies the only country on the continent where Spanish is an official language. Many of the Embassy Malabo’s Foreign Service officers—including the ambassador and deputy chief of mission—are also veterans of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. The Republic of Equatorial Guinea is a hidden gem featuring lush rainforests, pristine beaches, breathtaking waterfalls, rare wildlife, tropical weather, and unique, fascinating culture.
Equatorial Guinea is roughly the size of Hawaii but with a much smaller population. The country has two main regions, an insular (island) region and an area on the continental mainland of Africa. Like the Hawaiian Islands, the country’s five inhabited islands form a volcanic island arc. The capital city of Malabo is located on the largest of these islands, Bioko. At Embassy Malabo, 11 U.S. direct hires and more than 120 locally engaged staff strive to protect U.S. citizens and significant business interests, foster greater respect for democracy and human rights, and support efforts to diversify and grow the economy through increased foreign investment, transparency, accountability, and investment in human capital.
When President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo took power in 1979, the country was one of the poorest in Africa. It was underdeveloped and reeling from the gross human rights violations of the previous regime when many of the country’s educated citizens had fled or been killed. The infrastructure was ravaged, and the educational system was practically nonexistent. As one of Africa’s wealthiest countries during the colonial era due to its cocoa production, this was a dire development.
For more than a decade, the country remained one of the poorest in the region. In the 1990s, however, American wildcatters, led by Walter International, succeeded where the Spanish had failed—as the Government of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea (GREG) repeatedly reminds Embassy officials—and discovered oil in Equatoguinean waters. Soon, Mobil Energy (now Exxon Mobil) and other American gas and oil companies entered the Equatoguinean market, including Marathon, Hess Oil, Noble Energy, and Kosmos Energy.
The discovery of oil and natural gas led to a remarkable economic boom that transformed the country and opened a new chapter in Equatoguinean history. By 2010, Equatorial Guinea was the third-largest oil and gas producer in Africa and had the highest per capita income on the continent. U.S. energy companies have invested an estimated $20 billion in the country’s economy. With profits from the industry, the GREG has made enormous investments in infrastructure, building roads, ports and airports, as well as parks, a new university, and dynamic, ocean-front public spaces. The new infrastructure has linked villages and towns to major cities and transport hubs.
For more than 10 years from the mid-1990s, the United States did not have an embassy in Malabo. Instead, the U.S. ambassador to Cameroon, based in Yaounde, also served as the U.S. ambassador to Equatorial Guinea. The oil companies lobbied Congress to re-establish an embassy in Malabo to protect the interests of U.S. companies. Embassy Malabo reopened in 2006, and by the end of 2013, its staff moved into a modern new embassy compound. Today, the mission’s officers have a close relationship with the GREG, as well as with U.S. companies there, meeting with their executives regularly to ensure that U.S. business interests are protected.
“One of our most important initiatives is teaming up with U.S. businesses to prepare for unexpected crises and contingencies,” said Consular Section Chief Sami Jenkins.
After 40 years in power, President Obiang is the longest-serving non-royal head of state in the world. The political party he founded, the Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea, dominates all branches of government. In this climate, a significant priority of the embassy is to protect human rights and promote democracy.
“When it comes to human rights and ensuring a truly democratic system,” said Political-Economic Officer Sam Rotenberg, “we see some positive engagement from both the government and civil society, but there is a lot of work to be done.”
Unfortunately, poor governance and corruption have inhibited economic growth, and spending on human capital has fallen far behind spending on capital infrastructure. President Obiang says that corruption must be reduced; the embassy is also focused on this issue. One area of success has been convincing government agencies to accept electronic fund transfers instead of cash for the embassy’s routine administrative transactions.
“This removes the middle-man and reduces the opportunity for graft,” said Management Officer Theresa Sondjo. “Senior officials in the government of Equatorial Guinea welcome this.”
The embassy is working to support and help develop civil society in Equatorial Guinea through grants and cultural exchanges. One such grant was for the nonprofit MOSART Music School to purchase musical instruments and educational materials. The embassy worked with the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs to bring the American music group, Freedom’s Boombox, to the school in 2019 to conduct a series of workshops. The group also collaborated with local artists to give several concerts at various venues, attracting youth and the general public to the wildly popular cultural exchanges. The embassy supports multiple other nonprofit organizations as well, working on a wide range of issues, including women’s empowerment, youth motivation, environmental protection, and LGBTI rights.
The oil and gas production that rocketed Equatorial Guinea’s economic development slowed down in 2014 with a decrease in the price of oil, though Equatorial Guinea remains a middle-income country. Since the hydrocarbon sector accounts for the majority of the country’s gross domestic product, more than 80 percent of government revenue, and 96 percent of the country’s exports, this slowdown has hurt the entire economy. The government of Equatorial Guinea recognizes that it relies heavily on the hydrocarbon sector and wants to diversify its economy. Another mission priority is to help the government in this effort for the mutual benefit of U.S. businesses and the Equatoguinean people.
Given the natural beauty of the country, an obvious way to diversify the economy is to develop the nascent tourism industry. Equatorial Guinea has an amazing range of biodiversity. Bioko Island has one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of endangered small primates, and four species of sea turtles nest on its pristine beaches. Equatorial Guinea’s bird life is also diverse and captivating.
Since 2007, Philadelphia-based Drexel University has run the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program (BBPP) with the National University of Equatorial Guinea. The BBPP is dedicated to the research and conservation of Bioko Island’s biodiversity, especially its critically endangered primates and nesting marine turtles. The embassy has issued small grants to this program and brought speakers from the United States who are experts in bird watching, national parks, and entrepreneurship to share examples of how Equatoguineans could turn the natural beauty of the country into employment and economic development. The country has the potential to develop an ecotourism and adventure travel industry similar to that of neighboring São Tomé and Príncipe.
Equatorial Guinea’s historic architecture could be an added attraction for tourists. Bioko Island is dotted with interesting churches and houses from the Spanish colonial era. One building is a beautiful, wooden cathedral in the small village of Batete, about 40 miles from Malabo. The Spanish built the church exclusively with local timber in the 1920s. It is a rare example of Spanish modernist ecclesiastical architecture in a wooden structure. Time and the elements, however, have taken a heavy toll on the church. Its walls bend outward, its exterior is damaged, and its roof leaks. The embassy has secured a grant through the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation to restore the church, an effort that will extend over the next two years.
U.S. citizens can travel to Equatorial Guinea without a visa, and the opportunity to see exotic wildlife and historic architecture is sure to attract many, so long as the region remains safe. Toward that end, the embassy is working to help address regional security concerns in the Gulf of Guinea and Central Africa in general, which has included helping Equatorial Guinea secure its borders, airports, and seaports. The embassy will soon send members of the country’s security forces to the International Law Enforcement Academy training program in San Salvador.
“We try to bring our knowledge and our law enforcement standards and best practices to other countries and have them adopt our standards as their own,” said Regional Security Officer Jose Mercado.
For American diplomats and their families, life in Malabo is surprisingly comfortable. There are on-compound fitness classes as part of the Health Unit’s wellness program, a close-knit embassy community, and plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation. The magnificent parks, beaches, and oceanside promenades are open to all and have a family-friendly atmosphere.
“Equatorial Guinea is a beautiful, relatively safe place,” said Jarahn Hillsman, the deputy chief of mission, “You can go bike riding. You can run in the park. The country has a lot to offer.”
“My family and I love to go to the beaches,” said Rose Quinones-Mercado, an eligible family member who works in the Public Affairs Section. “We are surrounded by unique nature; things you’re not going to see anywhere else.”
Equatorial Guinea is a place of pristine beauty and untold potential.
“Mission Malabo provides a unique opportunity for responsibility and access early in one’s career. Our section heads regularly interact with government ministers,” said Ambassador Susan Stevenson. “Equatorial Guinea boasts a mix of indigenous, colonial, and regional influences. It’s a small country, so it’s easier to make a difference.”
Bryan Schiller is the public affairs officer at Embassy Malabo