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Building for the Future. Photo: Sam Dean
EGVistas Magazine
Building for the Future
By Thomas Cromwell
EGVistas Magazine

Modern office buildings shape the skyline in Malabo II. Photo: Sam DeanOnly 20 years ago Equatorial Guinea was one of Africa’s poorest nations. Today it is one of the richest. According to World Bank data, in 1995, GDP per capita was just $371. By 2013, this number had leapt to $24,036.

Critics (that would be most of the Western media and many Western governments) point to the huge disparity in wealth between President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and his family as well as those in government and business who have benefitted from the windfall of income from oil and gas, on the one hand, and the general population, on the other.

This disparity is real, but it hardly tells the full story of where Equatorial Guinea is headed as a country. After all, you can find those disparities throughout the developing world, if not throughout the world as a whole.

It is instructive to look at what has been done by the government of President Obiang over the past two decades. That record is remarkable, especially in the African context.

The whole country is connected with good quality paved roads. Intersecting the mainland, from Bata on the coast to Mongomo on the eastern border with Gabon, is a first-rate, four-lane highway. Similar motorways connect this highway and the airport at Mongomeyen with the new capital city being built at Oyala, near the center of the rectangular continental part of the country, called Rio Muni.

Electrical generation capacity has been increased to cover all domestic needs. Brownouts and blackouts in Malabo and Bata are a thing of the past, and power lines can be seen snaking through the forests to remote towns and villages. Connecting the whole population to this grid will take more time, but the work is ongoing.

New airport terminals have been built, and air transport is steadily on the rise. Even the little island of Corisco has a brand new terminal, just waiting for the tourists who will some day stay at the hotels that are to be built there.

Ports have witnessed major expansion and improvements, especially at Malabo and Luba on Bioko Island, and at Bata on Rio Muni. Plans are afoot and work has been done to make Mbini, at the mouth of the Wele River, a major industrial center.

Mobile phone networks cover most of the inhabited areas of the country, and service is generally inexpensive and good.

To supplement and improve on Internet access via satellite connections, Equatorial Guinea paid $25 million to be connected, in late 2012, to the ACE underwater fiber optic cable that originates in Portugal and runs down the west coast of Africa. Internal connections to this network are proliferating, and the cost of bandwidth is going down.

Not only is the physical environment being transformed. To provide international quality healthcare, the government contracted International Medical Services of Israel to build and operate a network of medical centers. An initial unit was opened in Bata in 2007, and another in Sipopo, outside Malabo, in 2011. A third is being built for the new capital at Oyala. Another state-of-the-art hospital built by IMS was inaugurated earlier this year in Mongomo.

Presidents Obiang and Obama with their spouses in 2009. Photo: Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

Treatment in these facilities is provided at very reasonable rates, and the CEO of La Paz in Sipopo, Dr. Michael Averbukh, says no patient has ever been turned away because they couldn’t pay.

In the meantime, education has been greatly boosted across the board. The CIA World Factbook estimates literacy at 94.2 percent of the population, one of the best rates in Africa. The National University was established in 1995 with just 200 students. Today it has 9,000 in Malabo and a similar number in Bata, and new campuses are being built in both locations. Oyala will be the home of a new institution for 8,000 students, the American University of Central Africa.

To help families improve their living circumstances, the government has built thousands of apartments in Malabo and Bata that can be purchased at subsidized prices. An early development of subsidized housing in Malabo, called Buena Esperanza, offers single family homes that cost $40,000 to build at $20,000 each, which can be paid for at $100 a month.

Oliver Moss is an American who first discovered Equatorial Guinea as an officer at the American Embassy. Today he is the Country Manager for Vaalco Energy. In a recent interview in Malabo he reflected on the remarkable changes over the last five years. “You would not recognize the place,” he says.

The real challenge for Equatorial Guinea is the transformation of the culture to adapt to a modern economy. It simply takes time to develop the mentality and capabilities needed to man a modern state. In the meantime, the government is building for a future in which the new office buildings will be populated with Equatoguineans who are well equipped to run a 21st Century economy.

The American oil and gas giants, which have invested some $14 billion in Equatorial Guinea so far, are helping out. ExxonMobil supports an environmental protection program run by Drexel University and the National University in Malabo; Marathon and Noble support a program to make Bioko Island the first malaria-free place in Africa (including the development of a malaria vaccine by Maryland company Sanaria, which is showing promise); and Hess funds a program to train teachers for the schools in Equatorial Guinea.

From a strategic perspective, Equatorial Guinea is of obvious importance. It is now the third largest oil producer in Sub-Saharan Africa, after Nigeria and Angola. Washington’s ambassador to Malabo, Mark L. Asquino, says, “This is an important country to us.” He notes that “we have very honest and frank discussions with the government here,” and have disagreements on issues such as human rights.

The ambassador believes that one thing the country might do to enhance its image is to make protection of the environment a priority, as countries like Rwanda and Gabon have done. Streamlining business procedures for investors would also help, he says.

The national development plan of Equatorial Guinea is called Horizon 2020. It identifies a number of areas for initial development in a first phase, which essentially ran from 2008 to 2012. The first one involved infrastructure development and capacity building. In the second phase, the plan focuses on developing four major economic sectors: energy, agriculture and fisheries, tourism, and financial services.

The goal is for Equatorial Guinea to emerge as a modern state by 2020. That is a mere 25 years since the discovery of plentiful hydrocarbon deposits beneath the country’s Gulf of Guinea waters brought riches to the country for the first time. President Obiang is a hard worker and relentlessly pushing his nation to modernize. The road has not been smooth or easy, and will not be in the future, but there is no doubt that the march to modernization of Equatorial Guinea is a fact that is foolish to ignore.

The largely empty four-lane highway from Bata to Mongomo and the low occupancy rates at the Sofitel luxury hotels in Malabo and Sipopo might seem to indict the Horizon 2020 vision. But as time passes, the population gets educated and engages in the national transformation, the roads begin to fill with cars, and a new Equatorial Guinea emerges.

Sofitel’s manager for the past six years, Sylvain Chauvet, came to Equatorial Guinea after 11 years of hotel management in other African countries. “I have never seen a country grow so fast,” he says. “Everything is done for the wellbeing of the people.” The strategy is clear to him: “They are building for the future.”

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EG Vistas Malabo Guide

EG Vistas Magazine

EGVistas Magazine summer 2014
Summer 2014

Vistas - Summer 2014 Articles

Summer 2014 Articles

Building for the Future
Interview NJ Ayuk:
An Improving Business Climate Brings Horizon 2020 Goals Closer
Return for Investment
Higher Education Gets a Major Boost
CANIGE: First-Class Schooling
La Paz: World-Class Healthcare at
Reasonable Rates
A Successful US-EG Collaboration to Protect Bioko's Wildlife
Drexel's Man in Malabo
Interview Cathy Krajicek:
Marathon's Investment in Equatorial Guinea
Iconic Cathedral of Malabo Gets a Facelift
A Museum of Modern Art
Miss Yuma: A Voice to Remember

Interview Guillermina Mekuy
Mba Obono:

From Biodiversity to Business Travel

New Vaccine Could Rid Bioko of Malaria
by 2020
Getting There
Staying There
Maps of Malabo

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