Skip to content
Subscriber Only

A Tiny Tyranny in Equatorial Guinea Sustained by Oil Riches

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has ruled the West African nation for almost 40 years, and less than half the population has access to clean water.
A ferry leaving the capital of Malabo.

A ferry leaving the capital of Malabo.

Photographer: David Degner/Getty Images

The six-lane highway stretching from Equatorial Guinea’s airport to its multimillion-dollar seaside resort in Sipopo is lined with skyscrapers, a state-of-the-art Israeli-run hospital, and luxury homes surrounded by carefully tended gardens. The 16-mile drive suggests the country’s oil reserves have enriched this tiny 11,000-square-mile West African nation, which has been ruled for almost 40 years by one man, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. State media once compared him to God.

Veer off the route, and the picture that emerges is much less divine. In Fishtown, one of as many as eight shanty communities in the capital, Malabo, hundreds of people live in wooden shacks. Children romp near sewage that flows onto dirt roads strewn with trash. Street vendors sell tomatoes and beans under a mesh of electrical wires that often spark fires. To pass time, unemployed men play Akong, a local board game. Many were idled after Obiang’s building spree ended two years ago. The country has some of the world’s worst social indicators: Less than half of the population of about 1.3 million people has access to clean water, and 20% of children die before reaching the age of 5, United Nations data show. More than half of all children of primary age aren’t in school.