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

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.