Equatorial Guinea

Equatorial Guinea

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An overview of the economic, political, and social situation in Equatorial Guinea.

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Demographics & Geography:

Equatorial Guinea is a small country both demographically and geographically. With a population of roughly 660,000, it is one of the least populated countries in Africa. It is also one of the smallest geographically, with 28,051 square kilometers (slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Maryland) spread between several small islands in the Gulf of Guinea and a mainland territory (Río Muni) located between Cameroon and Gabon. The average annual temperature on Bioko Island is 25 degrees Celsius. The mean annual rainfall on Bioko Island varies from approximately 2000 mm (80 inches) per year in the north to more than 10,000 mm (400 inches) per year on the southern coast. In Rio Muní, the average annual temperature is 27 degrees Celsius, with annual rainfall ranging from 1800 mm on the eastern border to more than 4500 mm in some spots along the coast. Until 1968, the year in which it gained its independence, Equatorial Guinea was a colony of Spain, and is the only Spanish speaking country in Sub-Saharan Africa. Both Spanish and French are official languages, and a number of local languages, including Fang, Bubi, Ndowe, and pidgin English, are spoken in parts of the country.


Oil is the primary engine of Equatorial Guinea’s economy. The discovery of oil in the 1990s initiated a period of tremendous economic growth, with rapid increases in GDP growth rates and per capita GDP. Fueled by real GDP growth rates that averaged nearly 23% between 1995 and 2008 (peaking at 71% and 62% in 1997 and 2001 respectively), per capita GDP surged to $28,103 in 2009, up from less than $600 before the discovery of oil. Oil quickly became the country’s primary export and economic catalyst. In 2008, hydrocarbons accounted for 99.3% of the nation’s $14.5 billion exports and 98% of total government revenues, which exceeded $6 billion in that year. Rapid increases in oil revenues have caused a 49% appreciation in the country’s real exchange rate since 2000, making domestically-produced goods less competitive on the global market. Value added from agriculture as a percentage of GDP fell from 10% in 2000 to 2% in 2008 as a result of less favorable trade terms and a significant migration of people from farms to urban areas in search of jobs in the oil industry. Despite fertile volcanic soils and having once been a net exporter of agricultural products, the country today imports the vast majority of its food.

The country has relatively limited oil reserves, restricting the window of opportunity available to the government for converting the country’s oil wealth into sustainable prosperity. Given its current daily production level (346,016 in 2009) and proved oil reserves of 1.7 billion barrels, the country’s oil will be exhausted in approximately 20 years unless substantial new reserves are discovered. To ensure continued economic growth after its oil is depleted, the country needs to strengthen non-oil sectors of the economy.


From 1968 to 1979, Equatorial Guinea was victimized by the totalitarian rule of the country’s first president, Francisco Macías Nguema. Macías never formulated a cohesive set of strategies or national goals; as a result, national policies were haphazard, shortsighted, and often counterproductive. By the end of his reign, the country’s once relatively prosperous cocoa and coffee industries had collapsed, and the economy as a whole was nearly paralyzed. Having received only a limited formal education, Macías was suspicious of intellectuals and educated individuals. He prohibited the use of the word “intellectual”, even fining his Minister of Education for pronouncing the word at a Cabinet meeting. All libraries were closed, and book and newspaper publishing became nonexistent. Macías instituted rigid censorship and banned all foreign journalists. Intellectuals were hunted down and killed, causing an exodus of the educated class. While estimates vary, between 50,000 and 100,000 of the nation’s 300,000 people were killed and another 50,000 – 125,000 people fled the country during this period. In 1979, Macías was removed from power in a coup d’état led by Teodoro Obiang Nguema, his nephew and a key government official in his regime. 

The ongoing 32 year rule of Teodoro Obiang Nguema has led to some marked improvements when compared to the Macías years, but a number of significant challenges still remain, both politically and socioeconomically. While public executions have declined in recent decades, international organizations—including the U.S. State Department and the United Nations—continue to document a long list of human rights and political abuses under the Obiang regime, including the use of torture, arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, and the harassment of journalists and political opponents. All television and radio stations are state-controlled, and the country has no regularly produced independent print media.

Although multiparty elections were introduced in 1991, international electoral observers have reported significant flaws in elections. President Obiang has won more than 95 percent of the vote in every presidential election. While a number of self-described opposition parties claim seats in the country’s parliament, nearly all are closely allied with the ruling party Partido Democrático de Guinea Ecuatorial (Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea, or PDGE). The lone legitimate opposition party with representation in parliament, Convergencia para la Democracia Social (Convergence for Social Democracy, or CPDS) holds just one of the 100 seats in parliament.

Corruption and the mismanagement of oil revenues is an ongoing problem in Equatorial Guinea. The country ranks 172 out of 182 countries in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index. President Obiang has publicly referred to the country’s oil resources as a “state secret.” Corruption is rampant at all levels of government. A 2007 memorandum from the U.S. Justice Department noted the department’s suspicion that a large portion of the assets of the president’s son and possible successor, Teodoro Nguema Obiang, “have originated from extortion, theft of public funds, or other corrupt conduct.” A February 2010 report by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that Teodoro Nguema used shell companies to evade money-laundering laws and channel more than $100 million into the United States to finance several luxury items, including a $35 million seafront mansion in Malibu, California. It is estimated that Teodoro Nguema’s official salary as Minister of Agriculture and Forestry is approximately $60,000.

Social Conditions:

Despite the significant oil revenues accruing to the state, the country is marked by severe income inequality; in 2006 (the latest data available) the IMF estimated that 60% of Equatoguineans were living on less than $1 a day. This is despite the fact that the country extracts 0.52 barrels of oil per person each day, one of the highest per capita production rates in the world. Yet the country’s oil wealth is not redistributed equitably, with the majority of the country’s wealth disproportionately benefiting a small class of politically and financially connected elite.

Health & Education:

Spending on health and education continue to lag behind other government expenditures. Cumulatively for the period 2004-2008, the Government spent more on defense ($678 million), police ($448 million), and hotels and tourism ($270 million) than on health ($233 million) and education ($232 million), despite having few external threats, a very low crime rate, and a virtually non-existent tourist industry.

Life expectancy is approximately 50 years. The under-five mortality rate per 1000 births decreased from 182 to 148 between 1995 and 2008. While this figure represents a marked improvement, it still remains above the 140 average for sub-Saharan Africa, and well above the UN Millennium Development Goal of 57 deaths per 1000 births by 2015. The World Health Organization (2006) estimates that the country had just 153 doctors in 2004—or roughly one doctor per 3300 residents—but recent investments in training and education have likely led to increases in this figure since 2004. In 2009, the first class of doctors graduated from the National University of Equatorial Guinea. The construction of the La Paz Hospital—a state-of-the-art facility in Bata purported to be the best hospital in Central Africa—was completed in 2006 in Bata, and a similar hospital is being constructed in Malabo. Despite government subsidies for low-income patients, however, it is unclear whether the hospital can be afforded by the majority of the country’s citizens.

There is a real need for improvements in basic sanitation. In 2006, more than 21% of the population lived in urban slums (United Nations 2008), just 53% of citizens had adequate sanitation facilities (UNICEF 2008), and more than half of the country’s population did not have access to potable drinking water (IMF 2006b). Equatorial Guinea ranked 118th out of 182 countries in the UNDP’s 2009 Human Development Index (UNDP 2009).

While the government has made certain investments to improve the country’s health system, critics contend that the government should be doing more given the country’s substantial oil revenues. Government expenditures on health have lagged far behind government expenditures in other sectors, suggesting that the government has not prioritized rapid improvements in the country’s health system. Although government spending on health has increased in recent years—from $16.6 million in 2004 to $105.4 million in 2009— health expenditures as a percentage of total government expenditures averaged just 2.21% between 2004 and 2009, which lags far behind regional averages for Africa (8.6%) and the world (15.5%).

Year round warm temperatures and high annual rainfalls make Equatorial Guinea a prime breeding ground for Anopheles mosquitoes, the species responsible for transmitting malaria. Mosquitoes thrive in this warm, humid environment, and poor sanitation and trash collection in urban areas further exacerbate the mosquito problem for humans since this provides additional locations for breeding mosquitoes to leave their larvae. The rate of malaria infection in the country is very high, with most Equatoguineans carrying malaria sporozoites in their blood. A 1996 study estimated that malaria prevalence in children under the age of 10 exceeded 50% (Roche et al. 1996). Between 2000 and 2003, malaria was responsible for 24% of the deaths of children under the age of 5; according to the World Health Organization, in 2000 less than 50% of under age five children exhibiting malaria symptoms received antimalarial medicine.

In 2004, two American oil companies—Marathon Oil Corporation and Noble Energy—teamed up with GEPetrol and SONAGAS (Equatorial Guinea’s state-owned oil and gas companies, respectively), and the government of Equatorial Guinea to initiate the Bioko Island Malaria Control Project (BIMCP), which aims to substantially curtail the prevalence of malaria on Bioko Island. Thus far, the evidence suggests that the project is making headway, with significant declines in the rates of malaria infection, anemia (a frequent result of malaria), and mortality in children under the age of five. Until 2010, the Global Fund was working to extend this malaria eradication model to Rio Muní. The government has since taken over this program. 

Since 2004, actual government expenditures on education have increased—from $17.5 million in 2004 to just over $111 million in 2009. Yet education spending as a percentage of total government expenditures remained stagnant during this period, increasing only slightly—from 1.74% in 2004 to 1.97% in 2009—raising concerns about the government’s spending priorities. While net primary school enrollment is high (approximately 87%), primary school attendance is less than 61%.

The long-term deterioration of Equatorial Guinea’s education system is visible in the numbers of students that are overage for their grade level. In 2007, 60% and 88% of first and sixth grade students respectively were overage for their grade level. Overall, only 17% of students are at the official age for their grade. The country’s high overage student population is due to a high repetition rate and to students entering school late. In 2007, 24.3% of primary students repeated a grade, a significant increase from 1999, when the rate was 11.8%. In both enrollment ratios and repetition rates Equatorial Guinea consistently ranks behind both regional and global averages.

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