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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Europe’s last Blairite: Can Manuel Valls win the French presidency?

He first made a name for himself protesting against halal supermarkets. Now, he could be the man to take down François Hollande.

The election of François Hollande as the president of France in 2012 coincided with the high-water mark of Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party. That year, Labour posted its best local election results in 17 years, gaining 823 councillors and winning control of 32 councils in a performance that has not yet been surpassed or equalled.

Gazing across the Channel, the Milibandites were given hope. Hollande showed that a wonkish career politician could triumph over a charismatic centre-right incumbent.

The UK’s shattered Blairites looked to a different star rising in French politics: Manuel Valls. At the time of Hollande’s victory, Valls was the mayor of Évry, a small suburb of Paris, where he made a name for himself by campaigning against halal supermarkets.

His father, Xavier, was a Spanish painter and his mother, Luisangela, was Swiss-Italian. They met and married in Paris, and Valls was born in Barcelona while the couple were on holiday.

In 2009 Valls urged the Parti Socialiste (PS) to drop the adjective “socialist” from its name, and he ran for the presidential nomination two years later on what he described as a Blairiste platform. This included scrapping the 35-hour working week, which hardly applies outside of big business and the public sector but carries symbolic weight for the French left. Valls’s programme found few supporters and he came fifth in a field of six, with just 6 per cent of the vote.

Yet this was enough to earn him the post of interior minister under Hollande. While Valls’s boss quickly fell from favour – within six months Hollande’s approval ratings had dropped to 36 per cent, thanks to a budget that combined tax rises with deep spending cuts – his own popularity soared.

He may have run as an heir to Blair but his popularity in France benefited from a series of remarks that were closer in tone to Ukip’s Nigel Farage. When he said that most Romany gypsies should be sent “back to the borders”, he was condemned by both his activists and Amnesty International. Yet it also boosted his approval ratings.

One of the facets of French politics that reliably confuse outsiders is how anti-Islamic sentiment is common across the left-right divide. Direct comparisons with the ideological terrain of Westminster politics are often unhelpful. For instance, Valls supported the attempt to ban the burkini, saying in August, “Marianne [the French symbol] has a naked breast because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the republic!”

By the spring of 2014, he was still frequently topping the charts – at least in terms of personal appeal. A survey for French Elle found that 20 per cent of women would like to have “a torrid affair” with the lantern-jawed minister, something that pleased his second wife, Anne Gravoin, who pronounced herself “delighted” with the poll. (She married Valls in 2010. He also has four children by his first wife, Nathalie Soulié.)

Yet it was a chilly time for the French left, which was sharply repudiated in municipal elections, losing 155 towns. Hollande sacked his incumbent prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, and appointed Valls in his place. He hoped, perhaps, that some of Valls’s popularity would rub off on to him.

And perhaps Valls, a student of “Third Way” politics, hoped that he could emulate the success of Bill Clinton, who turned sharply to the right following Democratic losses in the US 1994 midterm elections and won a great victory in 1996. Under Valls’s premiership, Hollande’s administration swung right, implementing tough policies on law and order and pursuing supply-side reforms in an attempt to revive the French economy. Neither the economic recovery, nor the great victory, emerged.

With the date of the next presidential election set for 2017, Hollande was in trouble. His approval ratings were terrible and he faced a challenge from his former minister Arnaud Montebourg, who resigned from the government over its rightward turn in 2014.

Then, on 27 November, Prime Minister Valls suggested in an interview that he would challenge the incumbent president in the PS primary. After this, Hollande knew that his chances of victory were almost non-existent.

On 1 December, Hollande became the first incumbent French president ever to announce that he would not run for a second term, leaving Valls free to announce his bid. He duly stood down as prime minister on 5 December.

Under the French system, unless a single candidate can secure more than half of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, the top two candidates face a run-off. The current polls rate Marine Le Pen of the Front National as the favourite to win the first round, but she is expected to lose the second.

Few expect a PS candidate to make the run-off. So Hollande’s decision to drop out of his party’s primary turns that contest into an internal struggle for dominance rather than a choice of potential leader for France. The deeper question is: who will rebuild the party from the wreckage?

So although Valls has the highest international profile of the left’s candidates, no one should rule out a repeat of his crushing defeat in 2011.

He once hoped to strike a Blairite bargain with the left: victory in exchange for heresy. Because of the wasting effect of his years in Hollande’s government, however, he now offers only heresy. It would not be a surprise if the Socialists preferred the purity of Arnaud Montebourg. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump