History of Equatorial Guinea

Published on 11th April 2006

It's pretty rare to open up the newspaper and find a story about Equatorial Guinea, but that's not to say that the West African nation has been an uneventful paradise. From the time the Bantu moved into the area that is now mainland Equatorial Guinea in the 12th and 13th centuries, there were tribal wars in the area. Having previously been inhabited by Pygmies and the Ndowe people, the area was quickly dominated by the warlike Fang. Their hostility kept European colonials on their toes, preventing a wholesale occupation of the area. Nevertheless, the Fang were forced from the coast during the centuries of slave trading by the British, Dutch and French, reoccupying after the abolition of slavery.

The Island of Bioko was settled by the Bubi people about the 13th century and they were joined by the Portugese in the late 1500s. Portugal held many of the islands in the Gulf of Guinea, including São Tomé and Príncipe. Portugal traded away Bioko to the Spanish in 1778 and, by the early 19th century, the island had become an important centre for the European slave trade. Profitable cocoa plantations made Bioko Spain's most important possession in equatorial Africa.

From 1827 to 1843 the British leased bases at Malabo (then called Port Clarence) and San Carlos from Spain for use by their antislavery patrols, and some freed slaves were settled on Bioko (then called Fernando Po). In 1844 the Spanish reacquired Bioko and began to occupy it. In 1879, a Cuban penal settlement was established there, and some of the convicts remained on the island after being released from prison. The general region of Río Muni was awarded to Spain at the Conference of Berlin in 1885, and its boundaries were defined precisely in a treaty with France in 1900. The islands and Río Muni were grouped together as the colony of Spanish Guinea.

Throughout the period of Spanish rule most of the mainland region remained unexplored, with the Spanish venturing into the interior in the 1920s. Only after the Spanish civil war ended in 1939 did the colonial power begin developing the region in earnest. Partial autonomy was granted in 1963 - the same year the island and mainland colonies were joined under the name Equatorial Guinea.

Independence came in 1968. With self-determination came the realisation that Spain had left the country virtually bankrupt. A state of emergency was declared. Francisco Macias Nguema was elected president and in 1970, followed most central and west African leaders by declaring opposition groups illegal. By 1972 he had declared himself leader for life, and was well underway on a campaign of terror and arbitrary brutality on a par with Bokassa in the Central African Republic and Idi Amin in Uganda. Many thousands of people were tortured and executed in jails or beaten to death in labour camps. Priests were arrested and schools and churches were closed. Being a journalist became a capital offense. The leader even made fishing illegal and destroyed every boat he could find. For several years, Equatorial Guinea was effectively closed off from the world. By the time Macias' 'rule for life' ended with a coup and his execution in 1979, two-thirds of the population had either fled Equatorial Guinea or been killed. 

In 1982 a new constitution was approved that called for a more democratic political structure, and a decade later legislation was passed providing for a multiparty democracy. However, by 1993, when legislative elections were held, only one party, Obiang Nguema Mbasogo's Democratic Party for Equatorial Guinea (PDGE), held significant power, and the regime was widely denounced for its continued repression of opposition groups. In the 1996 multiparty presidential elections, which were boycotted by major opposition parties, the president won a landslide victory. In the late 1990s, over 100,000 citizens lived in exile abroad, and there was wide dissatisfaction with the slow pace of reform. 

Obiang Nguema Mbasogo was reelected unopposed in 2002 after opposition candidates, expecting fraud, withdrew. In Mar., 2004, the government foiled an apparent coup attempt involving mainly South African mercenaries. The national legislative elections two months later occurred in a climate of intimidation that assured a new total victory for the PDGE and its allies. 


National name: Républica de Guinea Ecuatorial

President: Col. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (1979)

Total and land area: 10,830 sq mi (28,050 sq km)

Population (2006 est.): 540,109 (growth rate: 2.1%); birth rate: 35.6/1000; infant mortality rate: 89.2/1000; life expectancy: 49.5; density per sq mi: 50

Capital and largest city (2003 est.): Malabo, 92,900

Monetary unit: CFA Franc

Languages: Spanish, French (both official); pidgin English, Fang, Bubi, Ibo

Ethnicity/race: Bioko (primarily Bubi, some Fernandinos), Río Muni (primarily Fang), Europeans less than 1,000, mostly Spanish

Religions: nominally Christian and predominantly Roman Catholic, pagan practices

Literacy rate: 86% (2003 est.)

GDP/PPP (2002 est.): $1.27 billion; per capita $2,700. Real growth rate: 20%.

Inflation: 8.5% (2004 est.).

Unemployment: 30% (1998 est.).

Arable land: 5%.

Agriculture: coffee, cocoa, rice, yams, cassava (tapioca), bananas, palm oil nuts; livestock; timber. Labor force: n.a.

Industries: petroleum, fishing, sawmilling, natural gas.

Natural resources: petroleum, natural gas, timber, gold, bauxite, diamonds, tantalum, sand and gravel, clay.

Exports: $2.77 billion (f.o.b., 2004 est.): petroleum, methanol, timber, cocoa.

Imports: $1.167 billion (f.o.b., 2004 est.): petroleum sector equipment, other equipment. Major trading partners: U.S., Spain, China, Canada, Italy, UK, France, Côte d'Ivoire, Spain, Norway (2003).


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