Equatorial Guinea seemed like a place that Gabriel García Márquez had invented, a former American ambassador once remarked. A thumbprint on the west coast of Africa, the entire country consisted of an offshore island, where the capital of Malabo was situated beside a cliff-walled harbor, and a sliver of land on the continental shoreline. It had been one of Spain’s few African colonies. In 1968, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, Spain’s then-septuagenarian dictator, granted independence to a government led by Francisco Macías Nguema, an anticolonial politician. Macías turned out to be a depraved mass murderer. He imprisoned, tortured, and killed his opponents by the score. He closed schools, campaigned against intellectuals, and burned boats to prevent his people from fleeing his realm. His security guards executed 150 people in a sports stadium on Christmas Day while loudspeakers blared “Those Were the Days.” In Malabo, Macías maintained an active torture chamber in Black Beach prison. He increasingly walled himself away on the slice of mainland Africa where his Fang ethnic group predominately resided. He descended into paranoia and lashed out at anyone who challenged him. Roughly a third of Equatorial Guinea’s small population would die or manage to escape during his reign.
On August 30, 1971, Lannon Walker, a diplomat at the United States embassy in neighboring Cameroon, telephoned his colleague Len Shurtleff to report signs of trouble emanating from the nearby American embassy in Malabo. Walker reported that Al Erdos, the American chargé d’affaires in Malabo, might also be going insane.
Erdos had been sending strange cables in recent weeks. Now he had come on the shortwave radio to report on some sort of Communist plot involving one of his American colleagues, whom he had tied up in a vault in the chancery. Walker asked Shurtleff to fly to Malabo to investigate. The diplomat arrived that evening by chartered aircraft. At the tiny embassy—little more than a rented house—Erdos, visibly distraught, pulled him aside. He announced, “I lost my cool. I killed Don Leahy.”
He was referring to the embassy’s administrative officer. Inside the chancery Shurtleff found scattered papers and spattered blood. A woman’s scream called him to an interior room. There he found Mrs. Leahy kneeling over the body of her dead husband. He had been stabbed to death with a pair of embassy scissors.
An autopsy showed that Leahy had semen in his trachea, suggesting that love or sex had been an issue between murderer and victim. At his subsequent trial in a Virginia federal court, Erdos entered an insanity defense; his lawyers blamed Equatorial Guinea’s menacing tropical dictatorship for having driven him mad. The jury convicted him of manslaughter.
The case established a tone in U.S.–Equatorial Guinean relations that would persist for years to come. The host government accused one of Erdos’s successors of sorcery and expelled him; the ambassador in question, John Bennett, had persistently raised concerns about the country’s human rights record. The United States shut its Malabo embassy, pleading budget constraints. Thereafter it serviced Equatorial Guinea by airplane from its embassy and consulate in Cameroon.
Equatorial Guinea was perhaps the most politically toxic oil property Lee Raymond had acquired from Mobil. Given Exxon’s reserve replacement challenges, however, it was hard to be picky. Resource nationalism in the Middle East had driven all of the Western majors to Africa in search of bookable reserves. Exxon had had success on its own in Angola, but Raymond would mainly be dependent on Mobil’s legacy properties if he wanted to share in Africa’s emergence after 2000 as an increasingly important oil play. Some of the contracts available to Western oil companies in West Africa, such as in Nigeria, could be restrictive. Equatorial Guinea was a case where the upside was more attractive, financially—as it had to be, given that, on the world’s political risk charts, the country presented an extreme case of uncertainty. By 2001, ExxonMobil operated oil platforms about forty miles offshore, where workers on four-week rotations pumped steadily rising amounts of crude—more than 200,000 barrels per day and rising, or about 8 percent of ExxonMobil’s worldwide production of oil and gas liquids that year. Mobil had negotiated a contract with Malabo’s inexperienced government in which it secured the right to recoup its investment expenses from oil sales in the early years of production, paying Equatorial Guinea’s government an initial royalty of only about 10 percent. The principle that Mobil should be able to recover its costs early was typical of deals designed to protect international oil companies from political risk, but these specific terms were favorable. Now oil prices were rising, and the project looked likely to pay off big to both parties.
ExxonMobil’s headquarters and residential compound in Malabo stood beneath a towering dormant volcano. A large population of monkeys inhabited the mountain’s rain forests; they were shy because humans had long hunted them as food. In the evenings heavy tropical clouds often skirted the volcano, which had two peaks, like a double-humped camel. Lightning flashes and quiet rumbles of thunder added to an air of ominous majesty. The ExxonMobil refuge contained stucco buildings with Spanish red tile roofs—residences, offices, and recreation facilities, including a swimming pool. It was not particularly luxurious—certainly not as comfortable as the burgeoning Marathon Oil waterfront compound across the bay, which housed more workers than ExxonMobil’s did and had been laid out for tennis courts, basketball courts, squash and racquetball courts, a clubhouse, and a restaurant. At night, Marathon’s gas flares and the white safety lights at its liquefied natural gas and methanol plants illuminated the dark water that spread out beneath ExxonMobil’s smaller facility.
The second-generation dictator who oversaw ExxonMobil’s inherited contract was Teodoro Obiang Nguema, a nephew of Macías’s and a brigadier general trained at a military academy in Spain. In 1979, Obiang had led an uprising against his uncle and seized power. He arrested Macías and assigned mercenary bodyguards to execute his uncle by firing squad.
“When I came to power, the place was completely destroyed,” Obiang remembered. “No electricity, no roads. The schools were closed.” Few reliable statistics were kept for the country by its government or international agencies, but per capita income was perhaps one hundred dollars per year. Hunger stalked the forest villages, less than a third of the population had access to safe drinking water, mothers and babies commonly died in childbirth, and life expectancy was less than fifity years. Because of the depredations of the Macías years, the country’s cocoa economy, once modestly successful, no longer existed. Obiang settled into power in a less wanton but no less ruthless manner than his predecessor. He turned ministries, businesses, and land over to his family members and through them constructed layers of internal security, strengthened at the inner core by his palace guard of salaried Moroccan soldiers. Black Beach prison remained open, and the torture techniques of its jailers and political prosecutors did not much change, according to one human rights investigation after another.
Still, Obiang kept the United States satisfied about his foreign alliances. Unlike Macías, he sought to work as a professional authoritarian, in the manner of those who led neighboring nations in West Africa. At business meetings Obiang usually turned up in a dark, tailored suit with a pocket kerchief; he could be coherent, direct, and even sophisticated, if also persistently obtuse about the precepts of good government. To interact more successfully with his French-speaking neighbors, Obiang took on a French tutor at his palace. He played tennis regularly and jogged along the rutted, red clay road between the airport and Malabo’s elegant but water-streaked colonial plazas. He danced through the night at parties and drank copiously. He developed cancer and eventually traveled to the United States about four times a year for treatment. The scope and seriousness of the disease was a closely guarded secret, but Obiang, as rugged as a crocodile, seemed to overcome it. His regular medical travel to the United States and a deep antipathy toward France and Spain turned him gradually into an unrequited friend of America’s. Oil, he hoped, might persuade Washington to embrace him.
Equatorial Guinea’s territorial ocean waters encompassed some of the same geology that had much earlier enriched Nigeria and Gabon with oil dollars. Obiang provided exploration leases to Spanish oil companies during the late 1980s. It was relatively early in the development of offshore oil technology, and the Spaniards reported they could find nothing. “Thanks to the American embassy” in Cameroon, Obiang recalled, Joe Walter, an irrepressible Houston wildcatter, agreed to take a second look. In 1991, tiny Walter International discovered Equatorial Guinea’s first oil, in the Alba field. Obiang interpreted the news as evidence that Spain had deliberately suppressed his country’s economic potential, while the Americans seemed prepared to back him. Walter sold out its holdings as Mobil, Marathon, and Amerada Hess arrived to explore farther. Equatorial Guinea hired no outside lawyers or investment bankers to negotiate; Obiang’s first-ever oil minister, Juan Olo, worked out the terms. Mobil acquired rights to the offshore Zafiro field, which, as it turned out, contained at least a billion barrels, or at least three times Mobil’s entire annual worldwide production of oil and gas liquids in 1995.
Mobil embedded itself in financial partnership with the Obiang government; it paid for land, office leases, and security services. The local companies it worked with had many ties to the president and his family. Under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, it can be illegal for American companies to make sidebar payments to businesses controlled by foreign government officials who are at the same time handing out lucrative contracts for oil. In later years, the Department of Justice questioned Mobil’s deals with local firms, but ExxonMobil warded off the investigations by arguing that it had no alternative but to invest with the ruling family because there was no market for land or services that was not controlled by the Obiang clan. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, as interpreted by Justice, did not hold that some countries should be avoided altogether, only that American corporations should not act corruptly if they had a choice in the matter. Some of Mobil’s and later ExxonMobil’s payments to Obiang’s regime covered scholarships for students and relatives selected by the president to study in the United States. The corporation also held a joint investment in a fuel services company; Obiang controlled the venture’s minority partner, a company called Abayak, according to the findings of a U.S. Senate staff investigation.
“The private American (especially oil) companies would not wish to be pulled into U.S.G. [United States government] efforts to combat human rights violations in Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea,” reported a U.S. embassy cable written just after Equatorial Guinea’s oil began to flow in earnest. “U.S. companies are aware of human rights violations . . . [but they] present themselves as ‘ahead of the curve.’” That seemed mainly a euphemism for corporate strategies of hunkering down, avoiding publicity about human rights and other controversial aspects of Obiang’s reign, and staying as far away as possible from recurring State Department campaigns to reform Equatorial Guinea.
There were foreign policy episodes, such as in the Aceh war, when ExxonMobil leaned on State to intervene on the corporation’s behalf. Equatorial Guinea provided a different imperative: The Bush administration’s human rights campaigning in Africa was more likely to taint ExxonMobil in Obiang’s eyes than to help the corporation’s position as an oil contractor. ExxonMobil therefore adopted a low-profile posture of strict noninterference in Equato-Guinean politics, coupled with quiet advice to Obiang aimed at helping him improve his international reputation, which would redound to their mutual benefit.
Lee Raymond regarded the State Department as not particularly helpful to ExxonMobil, notwithstanding the example of the administration’s intervention to stop G.A.M.’s targeting of the corporation. America’s career diplomats did not understand international business very well, and some of them were outright hostile to large oil firms, Raymond believed. Where they did try to intervene in a commercial or contract matter, they often did not know enough detail to be constructive, and they did not appreciate the need for strict confidentiality, he concluded. Raymond could talk from time to time with his friend Vice President Cheney, who understood his issues, but the ExxonMobil chief executive had come to the view that as for the American foreign policy and government bureaucracy in general the best approach was, as he told his colleagues, “Don’t talk to them.” That did not mean ExxonMobil never asked State for favors; it meant only that the corporation’s demands for Bush administration intervention were erratic, inconsistent, and influenced by Raymond’s access to back channels with Cheney and other officials he regarded as sophisticated and reliable, such as Samuel Bodman, who would become secretary of energy during President Bush’s second term. ExxonMobil and its handful of international American peers in the international oil industry “blow hot and cold,” the veteran American diplomat John Campbell wrote in one cable to Washington from West Africa. “For the most part [they] prefer to try to address industry-specific issues themselves. They may turn to the [State Department], only to back away from requests on further consideration. If their efforts fail to achieve a resolution or problems become more acute, they can quickly return demanding action.”
During the late 1990s, after Equatorial Guinea’s big contracts were signed but before oil and cash flowed, Obiang traveled to Washington, D.C., for annual World Bank meetings. His country’s decades-old struggles against poverty were about to end—he needed to think about how to manage the great sums that would soon come his way. Obiang was in some respects naive about global affairs, but it did not require an advanced degree in political science to notice that small, weak countries with huge amounts of oil tended, as Kuwait had done, to ally themselves protectively with the United States, a superpower with a thirst for hydrocarbons and a military large enough to deter any power that might bully its oil-supplying friends. By opening Equatorial Guinea’s fields exclusively to American companies, Obiang hoped in time to coax Washington into strategic partnership. The president and his companions walked one afternoon past the grandiose main branch of Riggs Bank, at 1503 Pennsylvania Avenue, across from the Treasury Building and diagonally opposite the White House. The bank’s gray ionic columns stood several stories tall and created the impression that this might be the American president’s own financial institution—or, at a minimum, that it was deeply connected to the corridors of American power. “We should put our money here,” Obiang told his companions. At the time, they still did not have much of a check to write. They opened a Riggs account with a $5,000 deposit.
Two years later, in 1997, with Zafiro in production, $1.2 million a month began to flow into the Washington, D.C., bank. Riggs’s executives woke up to the gusher they had struck. It kept growing.
“Equatorial Guinea has gone from being a very small, insignificant relationship to the largest single deposit relationship at Riggs,” a manager named Ray Lund wrote to senior colleagues in 2001. With ExxonMobil now operating and profiting from Zafiro, Equatorial Guinea had $200 million on deposit and expected additional cash flow at a rate of about $20 million a month for the foreseeable future. “Where is the money coming from? Oil—black gold—Texas tea.”
Obiang had been denied high-level meetings with Clinton administration officials. Equatorial Guinea’s human rights performance, he was told, was the obstacle to such access. Africa Global, a small Washington lobbying firm, advised Obiang that the election of George W. Bush as president of the United States presented an opportunity to rehabilitate Equatorial Guinea’s reputation and to establish a deeper partnership in Washington based on oil interests. Obiang agreed to pay Africa Global hundreds of thousands of dollars to help him navigate the American capital and secure meetings at the highest levels of the new administration. One of his lobbyists secured an appointment at the State Department’s Africa bureau on February 22, 2001, a few weeks after Bush’s inaugural.
“Obiang has been waiting eight years” for the Democrats to leave office, said the dictator’s representative. “He hopes he can now meet with senior levels of the new administration.” After a State cable about the lobbyist’s meeting circulated in West Africa, the American ambassador in Cameroon wrote to Washington to say that “we would be delighted if he [Obiang] were received at a higher level,” although it would be better if “we [the American government] can get the credit instead of a lobbying firm.”
Henry Hand, a desk officer in the Africa bureau at Foggy Bottom, took a call a few days later from a Halliburton executive. The executive said his company “was being hounded by Africa Global to intercede with the Vice President’s office” to obtain an audience with Cheney for Equatorial Guinea’s president. “They declined to do so,” Hand reported. On March 2, the desk officer rode over to Equatorial Guinea’s threadbare embassy on 16th Street. Obiang’s ambassador to the United States explained to him that Africa Global has “a very ambitious agenda” for the leader’s upcoming private trip to Washington—the lobbying firm would be seeking meetings with Bush, Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
“As I left the embassy, oil company representatives were arriving for a meeting, having been convoked by the ambassador” to advocate for Obiang’s access, Hand reported. Nor was Africa Global confining itself to the federal government: The desk officer reported two weeks later that Obiang had apparently secured a meeting with Washington, D.C., mayor Anthony Williams “who may declare March E.G. month!”
The main practical item on Obiang’s agenda was “the establishment of an [American] embassy in Malabo.” But no meetings with Bush, Cheney, or Powell actually materialized in the days ahead. “He is reportedly irked,” Hand recorded. “The energy companies are increasingly unhappy with Africa Global, which they feel is doing a poor job of getting across Equatorial Guinea’s message. The lobbying firm has been very heavy-handed in leaning on these firms [ExxonMobil, Marathon, and Hess] in an attempt to get high-level meetings, after raising Obiang’s expectations for such meetings to unrealistic levels.”
The best Africa Global could do, it turned out, was an under secretary of state—hardly an insult, but not a cabinet officer, either. Alan Larson, Bush’s under secretary of state for economic, business, and agricultural affairs, who oversaw energy issues at the State Department, rode to the Equatorial Guinea embassy on March 19 to hear what Obiang had to say.
The president opened by stating that he would like to return to Washington on an official visit, so he could “convey his concern over the lack of a U.S. embassy in Malabo to the highest level of the U.S. government.” His country, he continued, “had received much assistance from private American companies” and it was “unreasonable” that there was no embassy. He understood that there were budget issues vexing the United States, but federal tax revenues received from the American oil companies making profits in Equatorial Guinea were “more than sufficient to pay for a new mission.” The decision to close the embassy in 1995, after the witch doctor incident involving Ambassador Bennett, was “based on erroneous human rights reports.” State Department public reporting on human rights violations in Equatorial Guinea—which continued to highlight torture and detention of Obiang’s political opponents, as well as the abysmal conditions at Black Beach—was misguided; it was the product of a temporary American diplomat in Malabo who had “no conception of the real situation. . . . Only officials posted in [Equatorial Guinea] would be able to understand the true situation.”
Larson replied that the Bush administration was “very interested” in working with Obiang “on encouraging the growing bilateral business relationship.” President Bush and Secretary Powell “had made it clear that promoting respect for human rights and democracy would be a continuing theme of our foreign policy,” but the administration was nonetheless “prepared to work” with Equatorial Guinea’s government. On the question of a U.S. embassy in Malabo, the State Department would be “reviewing the issue,” Larson said.
On Capitol Hill, among human rights activists, Republican-leaning global Christian groups concerned with governance and development in Africa, and the democracy-promoting enthusiasts of the neoconservative school, Equatorial Guinea was “the kiss of death,” recalled a senior Bush administration official involved. But the oil companies joined Africa Global in pressing Obiang’s cause. ExxonMobil, Marathon, and Hess worked through the Corporate Council on Africa, an industry trade and lobby group, to campaign at the White House and State for approval for a new U.S. embassy in Malabo. The oil companies argued through their Washington lobbyists that the American embassy in Malabo had been shuttered before the discovery of oil, when virtually no U.S. citizens resided in the country, whereas now there were upward of six hundred Americans living in Equatorial Guinea, shuttling in and out on rotation. Passport and visa paperwork had to be handled in Cameroon, and there was no permanent diplomatic liaison to address even routine business issues. Still, the Africa hands on the National Security Council, where the decision would ultimately be made, hesitated. They knew George W. Bush would be accused of selling out human rights for oil profits if the administration reopened the embassy.
Obiang wanted military training, too. His government had received a State Department license to hire Military Professional Resources International (M.P.R.I.), a government-connected security contractor based in northern Virginia, to improve the virtually nonexistent capabilities of Equatorial Guinea’s tiny coast guard and navy. It was unusual for State to approve any license for military training for a regime with a human rights record as bad as Equatorial Guinea’s, but maritime defense work had been rationalized as necessary to protect huge American oil investments offshore. Now Obiang wanted to expand M.P.R.I.’s training to include his military and internal security forces and to contribute to regional campaigns against maritime piracy and illegal fishing. Obiang had told Larson that he needed additional military assistance to “protect [Equatorial Guinea’s] sovereignty and the U.S. investment.”
He sent his foreign minister and energy adviser to Washington to explain that his request reflected Equatorial Guinea’s “concern over security issues, particularly the safety of offshore oil installations, but also stems from the president’s desire to emulate the United States in areas such as democratization and respect for human rights.” The Bush administration stalled some more.
The administration did allow Obiang a steady stream of official meetings when he visited America for cancer treatment or other private reasons. On September 7, 2001, Obiang again met Under Secretary of State Alan Larson. United States investment in Equatorial Guinea, all in the oil and gas sector, “is having a great impact on the country,” Obiang pleaded. But he needed help. His country had been called the “Kuwait of Africa,” he said, but with a mere 10 percent royalty rate on oil production in the early phase, “this does not accurately reflect the revenues that the government receives.” The country was still waiting for ExxonMobil to cross the break-even point in the recovery of its investments, after which Equatorial Guinea’s take would rise; the country was not yet as wealthy as it would be.
Larson agreed that the “investment of U.S. companies” in Equatorial Guinea “strengthens the bilateral relationship” with America. He warned, however, that the more prominent Equatorial Guinea became as a global oil supplier, “there will also be increased scrutiny from human rights groups around the world.” There was nothing the Bush administration could do about that—it was a fact of global life in an age when the power of nongovernmental campaigners and media was increasing. Larson “encouraged Obiang to continue to work constructively” with ExxonMobil, Marathon, and Hess, “who have shown so much confidence in [Equatorial Guinea] to invest so much there.” On the question of the royalty rate and other financial matters, Larson “assured” Obiang that the American companies would “deal squarely” with Equatorial Guinea.
Al Qaeda terrorists struck Washington and New York four days later. Obiang was still in town, ensconced at the luxury Willard Hotel, which is located on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol. He was smuggled out of the hotel through the garage. Terrorism fears now joined oil dependence as glue in the emerging U.S.-Obiang relationship. The Bush administration soon briefed Equatorial Guinea on “increased Al Qaeda operations under way throughout the world and the possibility that Al Qaeda might target petroleum facilities.” Obiang readily invited American diplomats to talk with him about security issues. His regime lived in perpetual insecurity, plagued by internal coup plots and menaced by much larger neighbors, particularly Nigeria, that might covet the country’s oil wealth. Rising fears within the Bush administration that seaborne Al Qaeda–inspired terrorists might attack American offshore oil platforms would draw Malabo and Washington toward a security partnership, some of Obiang’s advisers believed. Equatorial Guinea’s production, moreover, was expanding by the month. The country pumped out just fewer than 300,000 barrels per day in 2002 and expected more than 350,000 barrels per day in 2003. This would mean, a State Department cable noted, that Equatorial Guinea “will become the third largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa, after Nigeria and Angola.” Hardly anyone had noticed the country’s emergence on world oil markets. The Bush administration at last overcame its hesitations; the White House approved the embassy and prepared for its reopening.
George Staples arrived in November 2001 as the new American ambassador. He was a career foreign service officer, an African American who wore wire-rimmed glasses and who spoke Spanish, French, and Turkish. Staples had divided his tours among the Carribean, Latin America, the Middle East, and the Continent. He had served a previous tour in Malabo, as a political officer, during the 1980s.
On January 23, 2002, Staples flew to Equatorial Guinea for the first time after a fifteen-year absence. The country he saw dazzled him—road construction under way, new hotels, the modern corporate enclaves of ExxonMobil and Marathon, and small supermarkets. Obiang remembered Staples from his earlier tour, when they occasionally bumped into each other while jogging on the airport road. They met now at the president’s palace above Malabo harbor. The atmosphere in the receiving room was formal; bodyguards and aides stood by in attendance. The president greeted Staples warmly; they spoke in Spanish.
“America is our friend, versus Spain and some other Europeans who have other agendas,” Obiang said. “The American companies made this possible,” he said, referring to his country’s boom. “The Europeans lied to us. We’ve never stopped believing this.”
It was gratifying to see a country that he remembered as one of the world’s poorest developing so rapidly, Staples replied. “You have to recognize that great wealth brings with it great responsibilities,” he added. It was vital that Obaing use his wealth “in a responsible manner, and not waste it on foolish programs or see it disappear through corrupt practices that could destroy the country’s reputation and erode its moral fiber.”
Obiang declared that he was “determined” that Equatorial Guinea would not “become another failed African state.” He elaborated: “Not a single West African oil state can be called a success. What has happened with all the oil money that came to Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, and Angola? When African leaders gather at Organization of African Unity meetings, they look to South Africa as the continent’s engine of growth, when Nigeria and other oil states could have performed this function long before apartheid ended.”
As to human rights, Obiang said he was “trying to develop a democratic system,” but his countrymen “were not sophisticated and sometimes had a low tolerance for opposing opinions.” When opposition politicians were “harassed and attacked,” it was “not on orders from the government.” The same was true of other human rights abuses made against his regime.
“Help us,” he said.
Like many diplomats, Staples was optimistic about the potential of the United States to improve a country such as Equatorial Guinea. Here it seemed more apparent than usual that American corporations and international nongovernmental organizations could lift the quality of governance. When he visited Malabo, Staples sometimes stayed overnight at the compounds of the several international oil companies, including ExxonMobil’s; construction of international business hotels was under way in Malabo, but none had yet been opened, and the State Department had yet to lease its own housing. The oil industry executives he met during these stays “spoke highly of Equatorial Guinea’s potential to become an African success story.”
The ambassador suggested ideas to his hosts, including ExxonMobil, about how they might directly contribute to Equatorial Guinea’s development, outside of pumping oil, by flying in teachers to run seminars on business formation, accounting, and the like. Staples soon learned, however, that while ExxonMobil’s local representatives were sympathetic and interested, they had trouble winning approval for such initiatives from headquarters. ExxonMobil, along with Marathon and other firms, did invest in malaria eradication in Equatorial Guinea, but the corporation shied away from anything that involved interaction with the country’s politics or business classes. ExxonMobil’s lawyers in the upstream division in Houston feared, for example, that if they trained young Equato-Guinean people and their businesses subsequently failed, the oil corporation might be somehow judged liable. To the American ambassador, this seemed careful in the extreme, but it did in fact reflect ExxonMobil’s strategy in poor and volatile countries. The issues of concern to ExxonMobil were largely limited to the production of oil and the sanctity of contracts. “We are an oil company; we are not the Red Cross,” as Andre Madec, an ExxonMobil executive who oversaw global community relations, once put it. “We don’t want to be seen as the de facto administration.”
Obiang remained hopeful about the strategic partnership he could eventually build in Washington through oil and security. The president bought big houses for family members throughout the suburban Washington region and he traveled regularly to the capital and to New York. At the Riggs branch across from the White House, Obiang’s aides arrived with heavy, bulging suitcases filled with plastic-wrapped hundred-dollar bills—up to $3 million at a time—and handed them over as cash deposits, which Riggs’s account managers gratefully accepted.
In tandem with the oil companies and Obiang’s lobbyists, Riggs’s executives tried to burnish Obiang’s reputation as best they could. “The president has requested to come to the bank to pay a courtesy call and brief us on developments in Equatorial Guinea,” Simon Kareri, the bank’s African-born account manager handling the Obiang and related accounts, wrote to Joseph Allbritton, the bank’s chairman. “I would like to suggest that we recommend that the President hire a P.R. firm.”
Kareri briefed the bank’s leaders on the political risk equations involving their idiosyncratic client. There was potential for coups or internal fracturing in Equatorial Guinea, and yet major American oil companies had “established a significant presence in the country and U.S. officials appear anxious to maintain good relations,” he noted. “The country could be valuable to the U.S. from a geostrategic view, given its location in Central Africa and the abundance of oil.”
Obiang passed through the branch’s soaring columns and into a paneled conference room one summer day. The bank’s senior executives listened as the president described his country’s progress. Obiang mentioned that there had been “pressure” from other banking and financial institutions to move some of his business elsewhere, on the grounds that Riggs was not equipped to handle all of the nation’s finances. However, “the President’s regard and loyalty to Riggs is unquestionable because he has dismissed all possible suitors as ‘speculators,’” Kareri’s notes of the meeting recorded. As to the allegations about his human rights record, publicized by Human Rights Watch and others, Obiang told the bank executives that he had not reacted to “the innuendoes” about such matters. “The President clearly regards his engagement of such discussion as demeaning to his stature,” Kareri noted.
Obiang did have one piece of business he wished to mention while he was visiting his bank: He requested a $34.4 million loan to purchase a presidential jet from Boeing Corporation, a 737-700 that would be outfitted with a king-size bed and gold-plated bathroom fixtures.