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Equatorial Guinea - History

Equato-Guineans are, by nature and of experience, suspicious people. The long-isolated population developed the conservative affect of most such nations. Their early interactions with the outside, when they came, were almost always painful. Whether suffering as the prey of slavers, under the whip of colonialist coffee and cocoa farmers, or more recently from the privations of foreign "Tropical Gangsters" opportunistically looking to cheat, steal or otherwise benefit from the once-impoverished country, visitors were believed to bring problems. Equatorial Guinea (EG) suffered a brief, brutal colonial period under its fascist Spanish overseers, and then, a generation ago, fell off the cliff with its first elected leader; the paranoid, cruel Macias, who did more proportional harm to the country's already-miserable population than Pol Pot did in Cambodia.

The 1979 coup brought changes in leadership and a few improvements, but the country remained extremely poor and isolated until US wildcatters, encouraged by a once-active US Embassy, found commercial quantities of oil and gas offshore in the mid-90s. While the arrival of oil riches only increased the flow of predators, it has also generated local sharks -- not to mention enhancing the country's profile as an attractive "takeover target." The challenges confronting a country that moved from being one of the world's poorest to one of its richest (in per capita income terms) in less than a single generation are myriad.

The first inhabitants of the region that is now Equatorial Guinea are believed to have been Pygmies, of whom only isolated pockets remain in northern Rio Muni. Bantu migrations between the 17th and 19th centuries brought the coastal tribes and later the Fang. Elements of the latter may have generated the Bubi, who immigrated to Bioko from Cameroon and Rio Muni in several waves and succeeded former Neolithic populations. The Annobon population, native to Angola, was introduced by the Portuguese via Sao Tome.

The Portuguese explorer, Fernando Po (Fernao do Poo) discovered the island of Bioko in 1471. He called it Formosa ("pretty flower"), but it quickly took on the name of its European discoverer. The Portuguese, after having previously abandoned it, retained control until 1778, when the island, adjacent islets, and commercial rights to the mainland between the Niger and Ogoue Rivers were ceded to Spain in exchange for territory in South America (Treaty of El Pardo).

But the Spanish settlers nearly all perished. The Spaniards formed a settlement in 1764 at Melville Bayfand kept their position during eighteen years of strife with the natives. When the Spaniards first landed the natives offered them goats, fowls, yams, and fruits, and begged for iron hatchets to use in felling trees, and for other little articles of domestic worth. The Spaniards refused to give them anything except they would yield their sons and daughters as slaves. This was indignantly resented by these wild heathens, whose souls burned against the abominations of the slave trade.

In October, 1782, the Fernandians poisoned the waters, and compelled the sickened remnant of this white race to dismount their guns, forsake their fort, and fly to the neighbouring island of St. Thomas, on the Line. Out of the 3,000 Spaniards who thus came to fight and enslave, and get rich, only 200 escaped. After this Fernando Po was long abandoned ; the Portuguese and Spaniards having no settlement there ; and the natives believing themselves the sole owners and masters of the soil.

An attempt was made by a Mr. Robertson, in 1819, to colonize this island; but, owing to untoward circumstances, the design miscarried. As commanding all the rivers which flow into the Gulf of Guinea, the station is important in a commercial point of view; and being placed in the very focus of the piratical slave-trade still carried on, it affords peculiar facilities for watching and checking that infamous traffic. Accordingly, in 1827, the British Government sent Captain W. Fitzwilliam Owen in the ship Eden, attended by the vessel Diadem, and followed by the steamer African, to form a British settlement at Fernando Po. From 1827 to 1843, Britain established a base on the island to combat the slave trade. The famous explorer and linguist Sir Richard Burton was consul there for a time, and detested it, calling his office "a plank-lined coffin containing a dead consul once a year". Before the advent of modern medicine, Fernando Poo really was a white man's grave.

Spanish Colony

Spain then went on to settle the mainland province of Rio Muni in 1844. The Treaty of Paris settled conflicting claims to the mainland in 1900, and the mainland territories were united administratively under Spanish rule. In 1904 the two territories were united as the Western African Territories and later renamed Spanish Guinea.

Spanish Guinea was from the beginning settled by a combination of civil servants, missionaries, and small entrepreneurs, both in agriculture and in commerce. A group of prosperous plantations was set up by Castilian and above all Valencian landowners, whose cultural level was considerably above that of the Spaniards that continued to emigrate to America. While no system of slavery ever existed in Spanish Guinea, the working conditions and socio-cultural setting of large-scale farming on Fernando Poo was not radically different from that found in such areas as Cuba, coastal Mexico and Brazil. Black laborers worked under a system of overseers, with the transition from black to white in supervisory capacities being effected toward the top of the administrative hierarchy.

Spain did not develop an extensive economic infrastructure but did develop large cacao plantations for internal consumption for which thousands of Nigerian workers were imported as laborers. Spanish Guinea achieved independence from Spain in March 1968 and became the Republic of Equatorial Guinea. At independence in 1968 Equatorial Guinea had one of the highest per capita incomes in Africa. The Spanish also helped Equatorial Guinea achieve one of the continent's highest literacy rates and developed a good network of health care facilities.

In 1959, the Spanish territory of the Gulf of Guinea was established with status similar to the provinces of metropolitan Spain. As the Spanish Equatorial Region, a governor general ruled it exercising military and civilian powers. The first local elections were held in 1959, and the first Equatoguinean representatives were seated in the Spanish parliament. Under the Basic Law of December 1963, limited autonomy was authorized under a joint legislative body for the territory's two provinces. The name of the country was changed to Equatorial Guinea. Although Spain's commissioner general had extensive powers, the Equatorial Guinean General Assembly had considerable initiative in formulating laws and regulations.


In March 1968, under pressure from Equatoguinean nationalists and the United Nations, Spain announced that it would grant independence to Equatorial Guinea. A constitutional convention produced an electoral law and draft constitution. A referendum was held on August 11, 1968, and 63% of the electorate voted in favor of the constitution, which provided for a government with a General Assembly and a Supreme Court with judges appointed by the president.

In September 1968, Francisco Macias Nguema was elected first president of Equatorial Guinea, and independence was granted in October. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) operation was suspended in January 1969 by the government of newly independent Equatorial Guinea for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the unstable situation that prevailled in this tiny former Spanish dependency. There was a large Ibo work force on Fernando Po, which the government of Equatorial Guinea feared is bent on subversion. Equatorial Guinea also believes it was under pressure from Nigeria and came down firmly on the side of Nigeria over the Biafran question. When the territory was under Spanish control, the ICRC operation worked smoothly. After independence in October 1968, however, tension developed between ICRC officials and the Equatorial Guineans who have described the relief workers as arrogant and disrespectful of Equatorial Guinea's sovereignty.

In July 1970, Macias created a single-party state and by May 1971, key portions of the constitution were abrogated. In 1972 Macias took complete control of the government and assumed the title of President-for-Life. The Macias regime was characterized by abandonment of all government functions except internal security, which was accomplished by terror; this led to the death or exile of up to one-third of the country's population. Due to pilferage, ignorance, and neglect, the country's infrastructure--electrical, water, road, transportation, and health--fell into ruin. Religion was repressed, and education ceased. The private and public sectors of the economy were devastated. Nigerian contract laborers on Bioko, estimated to have been 60,000, left en masse in early 1976. The economy collapsed, and skilled citizens and foreigners left.

On August 3, 1979 Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo led a successful coup d’etat; President Francisco Macias Nguema was arrested, tried, and executed.

While the Soviets provided Equatorial Guinea with military equipment and training and the Cubans at one time had as many as 400 advisors in the country (probably half of them military), the Chinese virtually dominated the local market with their goods, built major telecommunications projects and helped train Macias’ National Guard. There is even an unconfirmed report that Chinese advisors helped protect Macias from rebel troops almost up to the very end. For this reason any specific criticism of the Soviet Union and Cuba for helping Macias would also implicate the Chinese.

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Page last modified: 22-10-2016 19:46:18 ZULU