A worker installs a flag advertising the cup. Photo: A worker installs a flag for the cup. Photo: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images
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Letter from Equatorial Guinea: forget human rights – here comes the football

When Morocco withdrew from hosting the African Cup of Nations, citing Ebola fears, Equatorial Guinea stepped in. But at what cost?

In the middle of the jungle stands Mongomo. The city, at the western edge of Equatorial Guinea, has a population of 7,000 and boasts the second-largest basilica in Africa, along with a compact football stadium, both with a capacity of almost 10,000. The Americans have just finished building a library and a museum and there’s a palace, where the country’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, was born in 1942. It was here that Obiang’s uncle and predecessor, Francisco Macías Nguema, staged his last stand before being toppled by his nephew in 1979.

Macías was the country’s first president after it gained independence from Spain in 1968. He was rumoured to have been a cannibal; he banned private education and western medicine and hanged 150 dissidents in the national stadium in Malabo while an orchestra played Mary Hopkins’s “Those Were the Days”. Then he made the fatal mistake of not paying the military. As the armed forces mutinied, he holed up in a bunker in Mongomo. He was eventually captured and the bunker was set on fire – a strategy that had the unfortunate side effect of burning the country’s foreign cash reserves – and he was executed.

For a decade and a half, Equatorial Guinea struggled on. In 1992, oil was found. The country now has a respectable GDP per capita of $25,900 – though the vast majority lies in the hands of the Nguema family. There is talk that the falling oil price is squeezing resources but when Morocco withdrew from hosting the African Cup of Nations in October 2014, terrified what fears about ebola could do to its tourist industry, it was to Equatorial Guinea that the Confederation of African Football turned.

Who else could host a tournament at short notice but an oil-rich state with a dreadful human rights record? Equatorial Guinea co-hosted the tournament with Gabon in 2012 and did it well. Its stadiums in Bata and Malabo, the capital, needed little work. But the construction of two further stadiums, in the north-eastern city of Ebebiyín and in Mongomo, was speeded up.

Getting an idea of the true cost is all but impossible. When South Africa, the only non-oil state in Africa capable of hosting tournaments, stepped in to host the 2013 Cup of Nations after it became clear that Libya couldn’t, it cost around $44m. I bumped into the sports minister, Francisco Pascual Eyegue Obama Asue, in a restaurant in Ebebiyín. He could only give a vague figure of £10.5m for each of the two new stadiums, while acknowledging that the rush to complete the projects had pushed the price up.

Obama Asue stressed that Equatorial Guinea hadn’t volunteered as hosts. “The Confederation of African Football asked us and we said yes,” he told me. “We were the last resort. If no one could, it would have gone to Qatar. It would not have been good for this tournament, a celebration of African football, to be cancelled or moved outside Africa. For that reason the president agreed. Africa has to consume what is African.”

This is a recurring motif. Equatorial Guinea seems to have made deliberate efforts to raise its profile over the past four or five years, hosting the African Union summit in 2011 as well as the Cup of Nations. “When we are asked, we are ready to help,” Obama Asue said. “There is a sense of satisfaction, of course, that the rest of Africa trusts us to do it.”

Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema (L) and CAF President Issa Hayatou attend the 2015 African Cup of Nations draw ceremony​. Photo: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

President Obiang is now 72. There is a feeling that he is preparing the country for a future without oil – precise information is hard to come by but it is rumoured that production has peaked – and without him. The effect of US, Chinese and government investment, even over the three years since I was last here, is startling. Most remarkable is the six-lane motorway that cuts through the jungle, connecting Bata with Mongomo and reducing a three-hour journey to an hour and a half.

Technically it’s not open yet. Apparently, Obiang is waiting for the Pope to come and cut the ribbon. British consultants overseeing the construction of a technical college in Mongomo speak of how sensibly Obiang’s grand project has been planned, getting the infrastructure right before putting up too many eye-catching buildings. Yet the human rights issues remain. Before the opening game in Bata, an opposition leader, Celestino Nvo Okenve, was arrested for handing out flyers and T-shirts urging people not to attend the tournament.

So far, understandable teething issues aside, the Cup of Nations has been a huge success, played out before packed stadiums. The flaws of Obiang’s government are manifold but in this it has done an incredible job.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.