Although first settled by pygmies and later by migrations of various Bantu speaking tribes, the islands and territory now known as Equatorial Guinea were first discovered by European explorers in 1471 during the great age of discovery that eventually led to Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World.
While seeking a trade route to India around the Horn of Africa, Portuguese explorer, Fernao do Poo was credited for discovering what is now known as the island of Bioko. Initially named after its European discoverer, the island remained in Portuguese control through 1778 when it was ceded to Spain through the Treaty of Pardo in exchange for territory in South America. The English established a base on the island in 1827 and remained as a presence until the Treaty of Paris settled all claims granting Spain sole authority to the island and adjacent area in 1900. Known as Spanish Guinea during this time, Spain unfortunately was unable to fully develop a comprehensive economic infrastructure for the region. It was, however, able to develop large cacao plantations that employed thousands of native and Nigerian workers providing it with one of the highest per capita incomes in all of Africa. Another positive legacy of Spanish colonialism was the high rate of literacy and health care. Spain offered the territory representation within the Spanish Parliament in 1959, holding the first elections ever for the country and eventually granted Equatorial Guinea independence in 1968.
Macias Nguema was elected as Equatorial Guinea’s first president. However shortly after being elected, he abandoned democratic principles and declared himself ruler-for-life in 1972. This was a dark and gloomy time for the nation. Macias Nguema ruled as a ruthless dictator for 11 years presiding over a regime that killed and tortured thousands of its own citizens. He outlawed all political parties except his own; executed dissidents or sent them to work camps; and threw priests in jail. He declared journalism a crime punishable by death and repressed religion and ceased education by shutting down all the schools and churches in the country. All governmental functions except internal security were abandoned during the Macias regime. The country’s infrastructure – electrical, water, road, transportation, and healthcare – fell into disrepair. The devastation of the private and public sectors was complete and the economy totally collapsed. For these 11 bloody years, Equatorial Guinea was closed from any contact with the outside world and two-thirds of the country’s entire population was either killed or forced to flee.
Saving the country from further ruin and bloodshed, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and a group of military leaders ousted the power-crazed Macias from office. With the assistance of a military council to restore law and order, Obiang presided over the country until a new constitution was drafted with help from the United Nations. The constitution was approved by the people and popular elections were held in 1982. Rewarded by the voters for rescuing the country, Obiang was elected president on August 15, 1982. He quickly disbanded the military council and dedicated himself to the long, hard work of rebuilding the nation.
Under President Obiang’s leadership, Equatorial Guineans who had fled into hiding around the world, flocked back to be part of the country’s new beginning. Churches and schools reopened. The country’s infrastructure was slowly being rebuilt, but progress was hampered by lack of funds due the economy’s collapse during the Macias regime. In 1989, Obiang won re-election to continue his rebuilding efforts. Then as if through divine providence, Equatorial Guinea’s prospects for a brighter future shined with the discovery of oil in Zafiro fields in the Gulf of Guinea in 1995.
This discovery quickly and permanently changed Equatorial Guinea’s status in both domestic and international affairs. While these vast energy deposits have posed a tremendous opportunity, the effective management of such a valuable and highly sought commodity has also brought a considerable challenge particularly to a country that was just beginning to rebuild from the rubble of utter devastation.
President Obiang won re-election once again in 1996. Although he now had the financial resources to start his rebuilding plans in earnest, he was also concerned about managing this resource effectively so that it could truly serve as a base to secure the economic future of the country forever. He began by ensuring that all foreign contracts regardless of whether they dealt with the oil industry or not included strict hiring and training clauses for native Equatorial Guineans. He decided to cap the oil-flarings to produce a secondary multi-million dollar market for liquid natural gas and provide for a cleaner environment. He was also concerned about eliminating the number one killer of the people of Equatorial Guinea: Malaria. He persuaded and partnered with oil corporations to invest in malaria eradication programs. Infrastructure and housing is now being rebuilt more quickly as new water, sewage and drainage are being installed and hundreds of miles of new roadways are being built to connect all of Equatorial Guinea’s cities and towns. Healthcare and education also top the agenda as new, modern state-of-art hospitals and clinics are being built and staffed and teachers are being trained to better teach students.
Since the country’s independence from in Spain in 1968, Equatorial Guinea has struggled hard along its path of development to find its identity and place among the emerging nations of the world. Although the discovery of oil has made this daunting task somewhat easier, there is still much work and progress to be made to fully rebuild the country.