December 24, 2004
Malabo: A dozen soldiers in black balaclavas came to Weja Chicampo’s house in the night, broke down the door and hauled him off. Eight months later he is still in jail and has not been told what are the charges against him.
For his friends and family the case is clear: Chicampo is in jail because the government of his country, tiny Equatorial Guinea in central Africa, objects to his political activities.
“He is being punished for having a political conviction,” said a relative who witnessed the arrest and did not wish to be named. “This is what happens in Equatorial Guinea to people who dare to criticise the government. This is not a special case.”
Equatorial Guinea has been ruled for 25 years by the same man, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who seized power in 1979 from his brutal, dictatorial uncle in a military putsch.
Split between volcanic islands and a mountainous jungle mainland, Equatorial Guinea is a country so small the telephone directory lists people by first names. Estimates for the population range from 500,000 to one million.
It used to be dirt-poor, but in the 1990s large offshore deposits of crude oil were found that have propelled it to third-biggest producer in sub-Saharan Africa.
The arrest of suspected foreign mercenaries in the capital Malabo in March, accused of plotting to topple Obiang and install an opposition politician, thrust the tiny nation into the international spotlight.
Foreign critics say corruption has stopped the flow of petrodollars from trickling down to the whole population, but the government says it is investing the newfound wealth in social services and infrastructure.
For the first 12 years of Obiang’s rule Equatorial Guinea was a one-party state.
Obiang’s portrait adorns every shop, bar and office and a bronze bust of him entitled “El Libertador” (The Liberator) stands on Malabo’s main plaza.
Many people wear T-shirts, dresses or headscarves emblazoned with his picture.
In 1991 a new constitution ushered in multi-party democracy and a dozen parties were legalised. Since then, there have been three legislative, three municipal, and two presidential polls.
In a 2002 presidential poll, official results gave Obiang 97 percent of the vote. The latest parliamentary election gave his Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) and small parties aligned with it 98 out of 100 parliamentary seats.
Opposition leaders and international observers say fraud was rife. The government insists the polls were clean.
“The EU considers that the opposition was not represented in the elections in an appropriate way and regrets that opposition leaders remain convicted and in custody, or in exile,” was the European Union’s comment on the 2002 presidential poll.
Of the 12 parties that were legalised after the new constitution was ratified, all but one have either aligned themselves with the PDGE or disappeared.
“In effect there has been little more than lip-service paid to multi-party democracy,” said the International Bar Association in a report last year.
Prisoner of conscience
Chicampo, 48, has tried for a decade to persuade authorities to legalise a political party dedicated to defending the rights of the Bubi ethnic minority.
He was locked up several times in the 1990s before going to live in Spain, the country’s former colonial ruler. He came back in August 2003 after the president called on exiles to return, but seven months later he was again in jail.
Amnesty International calls Chicampo a prisoner of conscience and has launched a campaign for his release.
Equatorial Guinea’s state prosecutor, justice ministry and information minister all said they had no information about Chicampo’s arrest.
The only opposition party left is the Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS), and it has had its fair share of problems.
Party leader Placido Mico was jailed several times during the 1990s. In May 2002, he was one of 144 people who went on trial accused of plotting against the security of the state.
Amnesty described the trial as “a parody of justice” and said it was organised “with the sole aim of eliminating the last peaceful political opponents resisting the permanent harassment to which they were subjected.”
Mico was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, but under international pressure he was released in August 2003. He is one of two CPDS members of parliament – the only two not from Obiang’s PDGE or its allies.
The other one is Celestino Bacale, who has also been in and out of prison since he became active in the CPDS.
“Obiang didn’t legalise the other political parties for them to act like a true opposition, he did it to make himself look good in the eyes of the international community,” said Bacale.
Unlike exiled opposition leader Severo Moto, who has said it would be legitimate to oust Obiang by force, the CPDS has always advocated democratic reform.
“People are scared to talk openly about the government and we sometimes feel we are preaching in the desert,” said Bacale.