“Are We Out? Or In?”
Anton Smith, who was the chargé d’affaires at the United States embassy in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, when Barack Obama was elected president, possessed a streak of independence that sometimes made it difficult for him to accept the conformity required by government service. He was a tall, lean, athletic man in his early forties, with green-gray eyes and a flattened nose that looked as if it might have been broken in a fight or a scuba-diving accident, possibilities that would not have surprised his friends. Smith had grown up in Arkansas, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English at Henderson State University. Later, he earned a master’s degree at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., as well as a second graduate degree at the U.S. Army War College, and he joined the foreign service. His political views were difficult to categorize, but he tended toward libertarianism and spoke favorably with friends about Representative Ron Paul, a member of Congress who did not often attract even glancing admiration from American diplomats. Smith moved through diplomatic postings in war zones such as Iraq and the Balkans. He also served for a year as a fellow on the staff of Senator Richard Shelby, a conservative Republican from Alabama who held an influential position on the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking. Although Smith had never served in Africa, his exposure to economic matters helped to qualify him for a posting in Equatorial Guinea. Malabo job openings, in any event, did not attract the swarm of internal State Department applications typical of, say, postings at the Barcelona consulate.
In 2007, Smith arrived as deputy chief of mission at the two-story rented concrete house that served as the U.S. embassy in Malabo. The ambassador, Donald C. Johnson, departed his posting before its scheduled end, leaving Anton Smith as chargé d’affaires, a designation that gave him the role of ambassador without its salary or full rank.
Equatorial Guinea remained a troubled country, but it was no longer the isolated, poor, malarial place that had seemed to induce occasional bouts of madness in previous generations of international diplomats. Modern hotels, housing complexes, hospitals, and freshly painted government compounds had sprung up in the tropical forests; the island capital and the mainland coast resonated with the mechanical roar of construction equipment. Internet connections were slow and balky, but they nonetheless brought Equato-Guineans into contact with worlds of information previously beyond reach. Oil-funded scholarships allowed more and more young people to study abroad. Many of the recipients were handpicked by the regime, but Western education endowed them with new ideas. When they returned to Malabo in polo shirts and baseball caps, they formed businesses or took up positions of responsibility in government ministries. The country remained anomalous in a number of respects—its government’s failure under Teodoro Obiang, even after the resolution of the Riggs Bank fiasco of 2004, to adhere to international banking rules meant, for example, that Equatorial Guinea had no access to credit card facilities and therefore almost all local commerce arising from the oil boom had to be conducted in cash. Organized political opposition to Obiang remained virtually nonexistent, and the president periodically tried, jailed, and executed real and imagined conspirators against him.
Anton Smith took to Equatorial Guinea with a passion. Its remoteness and its lush landscapes spoke to his sense of adventure. On weekends he dove into the Atlantic to scuba dive or snorkel or swim through the warm saltwater lagoons. He made friends with an international cocoa farmer who spent weekends on a colonial-era seaside estate. Smith would turn up on some Sunday afternoons to help cook up paellas for eclectic bands of relaxing expatriates and Equato-Guineans. He spoke enthusiastically about introducing Equatorial Guinea to the international sport of bungee jumping. He met regularly with the country representatives of the American oil companies whose operations enriched Obiang’s regime—ExxonMobil, Marathon, and Hess—and he tried to support their investments and policy priorities within the country and back in Washington. He developed friendships across the local community as well. Smith’s long marriage was ending when he arrived in Malabo. He fell in love with an Equato-Guinean woman; she became pregnant, and they moved in together. (They later married.) Smith could occasionally speak about Africa in ways that struck some of his friends as misguided, but his intimate connection to a local family deepened his knowledge of the country he was professionally assigned to understand. Smith was self-conscious about the possibility that he was “going native,” as diplomats refer to the tendency of envoys sent abroad to identify with their host countries, potentially at the expense of clarity about American interests. Yet if Anton Smith did seem, as the months passed, increasingly to resemble a character in a Graham Greene novel, this did not come at the expense of his professional devotion. He brought the same restless energy and willingness to defy convention to his role as America’s principal liaison to the oil-endowed government of Equatorial Guinea as he did to the rest of his life. And the more time Smith spent in Malabo, the more he believed that American policy—its one-dimensional focus on past and present human rights abuses, its unwillingness to respond seriously to Equatorial Guinea’s security needs, its reluctance to engage fully with Obiang’s regime—was misguided, hypocritical, and self-defeating.
Smith pointed out in sometimes-heated exchanges with colleagues at State Department headquarters that since the Second World War, during its search for oil security, the United States had entered into deep alliances with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, among other Middle Eastern oil producers. All were authoritarian states with dismal human rights records, particularly in the realms of free speech and assembly. Yet a diverse number of American presidents continually sold these regimes jets, tanks, and missiles so that they could protect their oil inheritance in an unruly neighborhood, and by doing so, assure supplies would be available to the United States. American military forces intervened directly to liberate Kuwait after Iraq’s 1990 invasion, and the U.S. military provided an ongoing de facto defense of Saudi Arabia’s oil fields. These geopolitical bargains had endured despite evidence that the Saudi government tolerated financial flows to violent anti-American Islamist radicals.
How did the case of Equatorial Guinea measure up by comparison? Rather well, Smith argued. Its government pledged full cooperation with American foreign policy. Its oil flowed a shorter distance across safer seas to American refineries. Its political economy was unattractive and its human rights record was poor, true, but at least Equatorial Guinea had the excuse that it had enjoyed a basis for economic modernization for only a decade—Saudi Arabia had been rolling in oil revenue since the 1960s, and it still had not liberalized its politics. Moreover, and perhaps most important, in Smith’s judgment, the situation in Equatorial Guinea was improving. Obiang had made heavy investments in the social sector, particularly in housing. He had accepted international police training on human rights.
Yet the State Department seemed congenitally unwilling to acknowledge these incremental changes and the positive direction that they might suggest. In the Middle East, generations of diplomats had operated on the assumption that it was necessary to accept the limitations of Persian Gulf political economies in order to fuel America’s economy with reliable, relatively cheap oil supplies. In Africa, by contrast, generations of diplomats had operated on the assumption that all that mattered were the continent’s large, often intractable problems, such as disease and low-grade civil wars. When it came to setting policy priorities for Equatorial Guinea during interagency meetings at the National Security Council in Washington, human rights issues figured more heavily than they did in the cases of America’s longtime Gulf allies. Saudi Arabia’s oil production dwarfed Equatorial Guinea’s, and the dangers of losing even unreliable allies such as Riyadh’s royal family in a region where Iran’s radical revolutionary government continued to foment upheaval might justify the different approach Washington took in the Middle East. But the policy differences were not subjected to careful scrutiny—the assumptions undergirding America’s regional foreign and defense policies had become deeply embedded.
The United States had not formally imposed economic or military sanctions on Equatorial Guinea. But America’s policies of restricted military aid and sales, and its constant harping on human rights and elections, amounted to “crypto-sanctions,” as Smith called them in his private arguments with State colleagues. These constraints limited American influence in Malabo and threatened to drive Obiang into alliance with China, France, India, and other less squeamish oil-importing nations. This was the case even though the country produced 450,000 barrels of oil per day, and American oil companies, including ExxonMobil, had invested about $13 billion that would be at risk if Obiang fell from power or stopped trying to curry favor in Washington.
During 2008, Smith struggled to persuade his superiors in Washington of his viewpoints. In May, Equatorial Guinea staged parliamentary elections in which Obiang’s ruling party won ninety-nine out of one hundred seats. International observers raised doubts about the credibility of the polls, particularly given that the country’s opposition leaders had been harassed, jailed, and forced into exile for years. Smith believed, citing his firsthand observations, that the vote itself should be certified as “free and fair.” He failed to persuade Washington. Then, in November, Manfred Nowak, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, visited Equatorial Guinea on an invitation from the government. Obiang’s willingness to issue such an invitation struck Smith as a sign of progress. Nowak, however, inspected police stations and prisons, found evidence of recent abuses, and declared publicly that the country continued to use torture systematically against prisoners who refused to make coerced confessions. “Torture Is Rife in Equatorial Guinea’s Prisons” was the headline on a U.N. news release about Nowak’s inspection. Smith criticized Nowak as a grandstander with preconceived ideas and argued that Obiang should be given some credit for openness. Not long afterward, Obiang was reelected to yet another term as president with 95 percent of the votes cast. Smith’s superiors at Foggy Bottom reprimanded him during his annual review for failing to take policy direction from Washington.
Smith decided that Barack Obama’s inauguration and the changes of political appointees that accompany any new administration offered an opportunity to lay down fresh, reasoned arguments to reexamine American policy toward Equatorial Guinea. On February 27, 2009, he filed the first in a series of six analytical cables to Washington. Smith’s series offered a comprehensive review of Equatorial Guinea’s relations with the former African colonial powers of France and Spain; its recent business deals with oil-thirsty China; its internal clan politics; its struggles with corruption and government capacity; its security challenges; and the policy choices facing the Obama administration. Smith marked the cables Sensitive but Unclassified—as a practical matter there was little choice but to send diplomatic transmissions from Malabo through unclassified channels, as the embassy lacked cryptographic equipment. “Are We Out? Or In?” the chargé d’affaires asked in his first filing.
“Since at least Forsyth’s ‘The Dogs of War,’ E.G. has been a favorite takeover target for both outside and inside plotters,” he wrote. “President Obiang came to power himself in a coup likely assisted from the outside. He and his team know how it works. Though without official declaration, the country persistently operates under martial law-like conditions. This posture generates human rights concerns as documents are checked, guns are displayed, and foreigners get the fish eye.” Still, Smith concluded, American policymakers would be better off if they recognized that Equatorial Guinea “is less a rogue state than it is a rudimentary one.”
He argued, too, that American economic and energy interests required a new approach. “Under pressure from U.S. oil companies,” he wrote, “Embassy Malabo was reborn in late 2003. . . . Nonetheless, our current state might still be better described as half-born than fully hatched. . . . The internal ambivalence of [the State] Department, the specter of a reluctant Capitol Hill and associated oppugnant human rights N.G.O.s, and the argument of scarce resources has kept Embassy Malabo on a drip-feed in these early years.” He continued:
Despite open doors E.G.’s nasty reputation is sustained and our ability to address problems constrained. . . . We are behind the curve. Unfortunately, while American oil companies are paying the bills (NOTE: U.S. operators Marathon, Hess, and ExxonMobil are responsible for almost all current production and most of E.G. government revenues), it is still more often the Chinese, the French, or the Egyptians who get credit for assisting the country’s development by undertaking high-profile projects. Our official allergy to E.G. apparently acts as an appetite suppressant to most private U.S. companies that might otherwise be interested.
“There are good guys and bad guys here,” Smith wrote. “We need to strengthen the good guys—for all his faults, President Obiang among them. . . . We need to get serious about engagement,” Smith wrote. “It’s time to commit. . . . It is time to abandon a moral narrative that has left us with a retrospective bias and ambivalent approach to one of the most-promising success stories in the region. . . . What do we want for Equatorial Guinea? Do we want to see the country continue to evolve in positive ways from the very primitive state in which it found itself after independence? Or would we prefer a revolution that brings sudden, uncertain change and unpredictability? . . .
“The latter has potentially dire consequences for our interests, most notably our energy security.”
Since the failed mercenary coup attempt of 2004, which had been followed by Secretary of State Colin Powell’s reassuring meeting with Obiang at Foggy Bottom, the Bush administration had quietly trained Equatorial Guinea’s intelligence service, occasionally shared intelligence about threats to the regime and to offshore oil operations, and permitted training of Equatorial Guinea’s onshore police and security forces by the defense contractor M.P.R.I. (with human rights education as a part of the curriculum). The Bush administration had also inaugurated naval training exercises among visiting U.S. Navy warships, the nascent Equatorial Guinea navy and coast guard, and private security patrol boats operated by ExxonMobil, Marathon, and Hess—exercises that were designed, in part, to speed the time required by armed Equatorial Guinean vessels to reach ExxonMobil’s offshore oil platforms, if they came under assault. The administration dispatched General Charles Wald, deputy commander of European Command at the time, to meet with Obiang and assure him of American interest in the “shared responsibility” of protecting U.S. investments in the country. Not all of Bush’s advisers fully accepted this proposition: Cindy Courville of the National Security Council told Obiang’s senior aides that “because of market forces, the U.S. would benefit from Gulf of Guinea oil whether the U.S. had a good relationship with E.G. or not.” The administration would obviously not lightly abandon ExxonMobil, Marathon, and Hess, however. As the Bush administration’s quiet defense and intelligence cooperation with Equatorial Guinea deepened, Obiang pronounced that he considered the United States to be “our best ally,” and he was “lengthy and effusive in his praise for the current state of U.S.-E.G. relations.”
The crypto-sanctions Smith complained about, as well as the limitations of Equatorial Guinea’s military forces, meant that it was easier for American-headquartered oil corporations to handle aspects of Malabo’s defenses than for Obiang to establish the capacity within his own Ministry of Defense. “The companies have better capacity to surveil than we do,” Brigadier Francisco Nugua, a special adviser to Obiang for national security, said. ExxonMobil and its peers installed and operated sophisticated “domain awareness” equipment in the waters around Equatorial Guinea, radars and integrated communications that allowed the companies’ security departments to track, identify, and monitor potentially threatening naval traffic. “If they see something, they communicate,” Nugua said. Cooperation between the oil companies and the Equato-Guinean navy and coast guard evolved to the point where, by 2009, the oil firms monitored “not only a hostile invasion, but illegal immigration” into Equatorial Guinea by boat from neighboring, poorer countries such as Cameroon.
As long as these security engagements remained secret, and ran on bureaucratic autopilot in Washington, the United States seemed prepared to deepen its partnership with Malabo. The difficulty was, every so often, news reporting or investigations by human rights groups would turn up fragmentary information about the growing security ties, and the disclosures would provoke angry denunciations by members of Congress and human rights advocates. The U.S. Navy, for example, conducted four or five training visits to Equatorial Guinea after 2008, under its Africa Partnership Station program, until publicity about the engagement led the State Department to demand that the training contacts be suspended until Obiang’s human rights performance measured up.
Fortunately for Obiang, coup-prone African governments rolling in oil but lacking in arms and intelligence to defend their bounty had a discreet alternative to the Pentagon and the C.I.A. for defense support: Israel. Quietly, the Bush administration encouraged Obiang to enter into security and commercial ties with Tel Aviv.
During the cold war, the United States and Israel had occasionally collaborated covertly to shore up friendly governments in Africa. More recently, Israel had extended its global influence by using security partnerships to export its high-technology equipment and its hard-earned lessons in counterterrorism and defense against strategic surprise. Retired Mossad and Israel Defense Forces officers formed consultancies to sell electronic surveillance equipment, drones, gunboats, helicopters, and training packages to wealthy, insecure African regimes facing insurgencies or the threat of coup makers. These deals often had at least as much of a commercial as a security motivation, but even when profit figured to a great extent, the exported sales and training packages strengthened Israel by providing additional revenue for its defense and intelligence industries, and by building new global networks and political alliances. Israeli trainers and consultants peddling intelligence and defense systems quietly equipped Angola’s oil-rich, formerly Marxist government and Nigeria’s Joint Task Force, which battled unauthorized oil-thieving militants in the Niger Delta (as opposed to the authorized ones).
In 2005, around the time the C.I.A. opened an intelligence liaison with Obiang’s security service, a Mossad officer approached Ruben Maya, Obiang’s national security adviser, according to a consultant to Equatorial Guinea’s government. A meeting in Paris followed. The Mossad “suggested that Obiang make a quiet trip to Israel and they would scan his plane and review his security,” the adviser recalled. This was a typical method by which Israel opened new intelligence supply relationships—it was the counterintelligence equivalent of a bank offering a television to customers willing to open a new account.
After some false starts, the relationship between Malabo and Tel Aviv ripened. The more Obiang’s ministers and advisers learned about Israel, the more they identified with the country. Equatorial Guinea, too, was a small country surrounded by enemies. A global power like the United States could provide useful advice about defense strategy, but Israel’s advisers understood intuitively what it was like to be tiny, threatened, and unpopular. Among other problems, Equatorial Guinea struggled with coup-making conspiracies in West Africa that Obiang and his advisers believed were financed by networks of Lebanese traders. By retaining Israel for defense and intelligence advice, some of Obiang’s advisers felt, they would be sending a message to all potentially hostile Lebanese: We know who you are.
By 2009, the Israelis had sold Equatorial Guinea electronic surveillance equipment and taken orders for armed speedboats, to be delivered in 2011. The defense ministry also acquired two small Ukrainian frigates that could carry a helicopter to sea. Regime protection was a visible priority; bodyguards at Obiang’s mainland palace practiced for would-be assassins at an outdoor shooting range mounted with human-size silhouetted targets. Some international diplomats in Malabo felt the Israeli trainers were not particularly helpful to their efforts to coax Obiang and his advisers toward political reform and the elimination of torture as a policing method; ex-Mossad officers doing business in Equatorial Guinea tended to exude a crush-your-enemies ethos that did not include much discourse about civil rights. The Israeli cooperation was not limited to defense and intelligence, however: Obiang also paid Israel to build and fully staff a modern hospital on the Equatorial Guinean mainland. Israeli doctors and nurses earning very healthy salaries provided international standards of care.
As his oil cash flow swelled, Obiang also bought attack Hind helicopters and rented out pilots and maintenance crews from Ukraine. The contracts provided that Ukrainian pilots would train local counterparts so that each helicopter crew would eventually have one Ukrainian and one Equato-Guinean at the controls in the event of hostile action against an invading force. Unfortunately, during one actual emergency, when gun-wielding Nigerian criminals arrived in Equatorial Guinea in fishing boats to rob local banks, the Equato-Guinean copilot did not turn up fast enough to give chase. A fully armed Hind followed the escaping bank robbers’ boat into the Atlantic with only a Ukrainian in the cockpit. According to reports that circulated afterward in Malabo, when Equato-Guinean officers speaking by radio ordered the pilot to fire, the Ukrainian declined, declaring that the direct, trigger-pulling use of lethal force was not provided for in his training contract.
In Washington, Obiang’s lobbyists at Cassidy & Associates tried to keep the momentum of cooperation with the Bush admnistration moving. At State, their strategy was to argue, referring to Equatorial Guinea’s president, who had now been in power for more than twenty-five consecutive years, “I’m not telling you this is a good guy; I’m telling you that he’s willing to change.” To prove the point, during one meeting with high-ranking State officials, in late 2005, Obiang awkwardly handed over a check for $4 million to pay for development work in his country that would be carried out by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Normally, U.S.A.I.D. used American taxpayer funds to assist poor countries; Obiang said he would be willing to cover America’s expenses if the agency would help to improve his country.
The gesture—and diligent pushing by Cassidy’s advocacy team—helped win Obiang a second visit to State Department headquarters, this time to meet with Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s secretary of state during the president’s second term. Obiang still maintained a residence in suburban Maryland and frequently visited the United States. A date was set for an April morning when Obiang was in the capital.
To prevent unwelcome publicity, both sides agreed that while Rice would receive Obiang formally in her office on State’s seventh floor, and two official photographers would record the meeting so that Obiang could display authenticating pictures back home, the meeting would otherwise be private—it would not be listed on Rice’s public schedule, and there would be no press notification.
As Obiang climbed into his car to ride to Foggy Bottom, one of his lobbyists’ cell phones rang. It was a reporter: “I hear your guy is going to be at a press conference.” The Cassidy team was stunned: Privacy had been negotiated and agreed upon, they thought.
There were three places at State headquarters where the secretary, by protocol, could greet an official visitor: outside, at the dignitary’s car door; inside the main lobby, at the elevator; or up on the seventh floor, at the secretary’s office. Cassidy and Bush administration officials had agreed that to maintain secrecy, Obiang would travel up to Rice’s office to be met there, out of sight. Why, then, would Rice’s office have notified reporters of the meeting?
The reason, Cassidy’s lobbyists were told later, was that the Bush White House had decided that morning that Rice needed urgently to make a public statement about Iran, and that she needed to do so in the morning, Washington, D.C., time, so that it would be carried on evening news broadcasts in the Middle East, which was roughly eight hours ahead. The Obiang visit, scheduled for 10 a.m., presented the best opportunity for Rice to get her statement out. So the word had gone out to attract the press to an event that was supposed to be off the schedule.
Obiang and Rice did talk privately, at first. Seated in the secretary’s office, with other State officials and note takers present, Rice asked for Obiang’s help with diplomatic efforts to calm violence in Sudan’s Darfur region. She asked, too, if Equatorial Guinea would vote to support Guatemala’s candidacy for membership on the United Nations Security Council.
Obiang told her that he had sought closer ties with the United States government “for a long time.”
Rice asked Obiang about his “top priorities,” and the president mentioned health, sanitation, and education. The secretary “commented favorably on Equatorial Guinea’s improvements on the education front,” as a summary of the conversation put it. (In fact, according to United Nations statistics cited by the World Bank, Equatorial Guinea’s rates of enrollment and completion in primary school had declined between late 1994, before oil’s discovery, and 2009, when the country’s national per capita income was about $19,000.)
Obiang invited Rice to visit Equatorial Guinea. She said that if Obiang continued “with reforms in human rights and democratization and invested in the social sector . . . Equatorial Guinea could indeed become a model country in Africa.”
It was the sort of pablum that had been exchanged between Obiang and senior Bush administration officials ever since the 2004 coup attempt; like Colin Powell, Rice had gently mentioned human rights as an American priority, but she had not pressured or scolded Obiang.
They rose to meet the reporters waiting outside. Photographers snapped them standing together, smiling. Rice called Obiang a “good friend” of the United States. She went on to make her comments about Iran.
The next day, the Washington Post pointedly reported Rice’s remark about America’s friendship with Obiang. Other journalists, human rights groups, and congressional aides soon denounced Rice for naively coddling a dictator. As the unfavorable commentary accumulated, Rice was “embarrassed, pissed off, angry,” an adviser involved in the episode recalled. It was yet another setback for Obiang and his regime in their effort to become West Africa’s Kuwait in Washington’s perception. Cassidy & Associates advised Obiang to wait for the next American president before pushing for more engagement.
ExxonMobil, Marathon, and Hess lobbied the Bush administration hard, arguing that Equatorial Guinea was an important country too often neglected, according to an adviser involved in the effort. But the companies did not want to be tainted by accusations that they ignored human rights violations any more than Condoleezza Rice did. As a fallback, it was easier for both ExxonMobil and the Bush administration to quietly encourage Obiang to build up his defenses with Israel.
Wayne Clark, an ebullient Texan, served as ExxonMobil’s country representative in Malabo as the Obama administration took office. ExxonMobil country managers typically rotated every few years; Clark’s predecessor in Equatorial Guinea, Jim Spears, had recently moved on to Angola. The corporation’s production from its offshore Zafiro field had leveled out to about 200,000 barrels per day, but at $80 per barrel, that still amounted to a business with about $5.8 billion in annual revenue. ExxonMobil maintained its low profile in Malabo; its elevated compound along the airport road had undergone none of the expensive renovations visible elsewhere in the capital after 2007. Oil workers shuttled to and from the corporation’s offshore platforms by helicopter and they moved in and out of Equatorial Guinea while interacting only minimally with local citizens.
ExxonMobil’s policy about working in Equatorial Guinea, approved by headquarters in Irving and distributed as talking points to public affairs officers worldwide, echoed the arguments that Anton Smith made in his cables to the incoming Obama administration. The policy was reflected in 2009 talking points on human rights that were issued for use when uncomfortable questions arose. The talking points reflected the evolution of ExxonMobil’s attitudes toward human rights matters since the days of the Aceh civil war, but also the continuity of its commitment to work with any government that would agree to acceptable legal contract terms, and that was not subject to prohibitive sanctions under American or international law. “We publicly condemn the violation of human rights in any form and actively express our views to governments around the world,” the prepared talking points said. “We have been dealing with these issues for many years and believe that our efforts improve the quality of life in communities where we operate. ExxonMobil is very concerned about human rights. However, we also believe that engagement enhances the cause of human rights far more than political isolation. Our practices are designed to ensure respect for human rights in our sphere of influence, which may by example have its effect on others.”
It was in ExxonMobil’s interest for Obiang’s government to be able to defend itself from invaders. It was also in ExxonMobil’s interest for Equatorial Guinea to improve its reputation.
Simeon Moats, the former State Department official who worked on Africa policy in ExxonMobil’s Washington office, developed a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Business Practices & Transparency,” which described, in simple and graphic form, the corporation’s philosophy about the allocation of responsibilities in poor and troubled countries. ExxonMobil would contribute “taxes and royalties” as well as “transparency” to the host African government. The government would in turn take responsibility for the “rule of law, health, education” and the “business environment.” ExxonMobil’s disciplined, modern “business practices” could also strengthen the national economy. “What’s missing?” Moats’s slide presentation asked. One slide offered a troubling list in answer: rule of law, predictable regulations, the sanctity of contracts, transparency of transactions, an educated and healthy workforce, and basic infrastructure. This was the gap African governments would have to fill while ExxonMobil carried out its profit-making role and provided taxes and royalties in support.
ExxonMobil had enough trouble trying to educate the African despots it worked with about the basic functioning of the global oil industry—persuading these leaders to emulate Singapore seemed unrealistic. When oil prices fell sharply after the global financial crisis of 2008, for example, ldris Déby, in Chad, accused ExxonMobil of deliberately holding down oil production to ride out the low prices. The charge lacked logic—ExxonMobil was suffering financially, too—but Déby was deeply suspicious of Stephane de Mahieu, Ron Royal’s successor as ExxonMobil lead country manager in N’djamena. Déby implied that ExxonMobil might be coming under pressure from “third parties” to hold down production so as to weaken Déby’s regime and aid the president’s enemies. ExxonMobil arranged a meeting between Déby and some of the corporation’s Africa hands in Washington. The ExxonMobil team “told Déby that it was firmly committed to maximizing its own profits, which implied maximization of production, and that ExxonMobil would not permit any pressure by any third party to change that policy,” according to an account provided later by De Mahieu. The team noted that ExxonMobil “had never abandoned operations despite Chad’s past political instability,” including multiple rebel invasions. Déby gradually backed off.
Nonetheless, as Moats’s PowerPoint suggested, there was one element of anti-oil campaigning after 2000 that aligned somewhat with ExxonMobil’s philosophy. This was the campaign for transparency about the management of oil revenues by governments. The underlying idea was that if citizens in poor countries had more information about how oil money flowed to their governments, they could improve governance and check corruption. The movement gained visibility as an initiative of George Soros’s Open Society programs under the rubric of “Publish What You Pay.” Later, with support from British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the government of Norway, it had evolved into a formal voluntary compact among governments, corporations, and nonprofit campaigners: the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Under the initiative’s complex and voluntary rules, countries and companies each pledged to disclose publicly data about oil revenues and royalties in particular countries, and to engage with civil society groups about how the revenue would be used to benefit the public. In theory, at least, such transparency would reduce the ability of corrupt politicians to steal oil proceeds.
Soros had written to Lee Raymond about his ideas in 2002. Raymond took the approach seriously. Raymond disagreed with Soros about some of the campaign’s principles—he thought the Open Society approach was discriminatory and too far-reaching, particularly because it sought compliance from corporations that traded on stock markets but had no means to enforce the same rules against competitors that were privately owned. But under Tillerson, ExxonMobil developed formal positions about the transparency campaign through its issues management process, and it assigned a public policy manager, John Kelly, a thirty-year veteran of the corporation, to lead the effort. Kelly joined the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative’s board of directors in 2007.
“We think it [membership in E.I.T.I.] helps demonstrate that we are opposed to corruption in any form and committed to honest and ethical behavior wherever we do business,” an ExxonMobil executive involved in the effort said. (The executive acknowledged, “I guess that message hasn’t sunk in with everyone.”) Kelly and other executives devoted extensive time and travel to organize the Equatorial Guinea regime’s candidacy for membership, which, if achieved, would provide the country with a rare seal of international legitimacy. In general, the ExxonMobil executive said, “We try not to get out in front of countries” on public policy issues, “so we are not going to go and bang on their door and say, ‘Okay, it’s time.’” However, because ExxonMobil itself had made a formal decision to participate, “we are willing to . . . talk to them about why we support E.I.T.I. and why we think this would be a good idea—and we certainly have done that in lots of countries, including Equatorial Guinea.”
There was self-interest in this altruism: “If you are helping to hold a government accountable for the use of revenues,” the ExxonMobil executive continued, “that’s just helping to enhance the business investment climate in there, because you don’t have a lot of dissatisfied citizens that can find other ways of expressing their opinion about what’s going on in the government,” such as by joining insurgencies or coup plots. “And if in fact the government is using the money to benefit the citizens, that’s got to be for poverty reduction, for infrastructure, for lots of other things that help improve the investment climate.”
Early in 2009, Equatorial Guinea’s prime minister, Ignacio Milam Tang, flew to Doha, Qatar, to attend the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative’s annual conference and deliver a speech at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. He spoke in a plush, wood-paneled conference room, at a lectern embossed with the luxury hotel’s emblem. Transparency activists; government officials from Europe, Africa, and Central Asia; and oil and mining company executives made up the audience. Tang wore a dark suit and put on reading glasses to see his text. “I have come here to assert the commitment of our president and our people to abide by the commitments” made to the Transparency Initiative regarding Equatorial Guinea’s disclosure of oil revenues. He described his country’s history and the impact of the oil boom on national life and wealth. “A lot of work needs to be done,” he said. “But we are confident we will meet a fruitful success.”
The political scientist Benedict Anderson compared nation-states to “imagined communities.” In the case of Equatorial Guinea, by 2009, there were several. There was the country that seemed normal and functional enough to dispatch a prime minister to a conference in Qatar to read a speech that pledged adherence to international treaty norms. This was the Equatorial Guinea preferred by—needed by—ExxonMobil and other hopeful supporters of the Obiang regime. The country they imagined had a difficult past but was gradually mustering the will to improve and normalize. There was also the Equatorial Guinea imagined by the British mercenary coup leader Simon Mann, his coconspirators, and the security consultants from Israel and M.P.R.I.—a place that resembled less a nation-state than a museum housing crown jewels, but one lacking robust fencing, alarms, and armed guards.
There was also the Equatorial Guinea known by most of its citizens and internal political contestants: a family-run enterprise dominated by a particular mainland clan of the Fang ethnic group and presided over by an aging godfather who ruthlessly punished usurpers. The norms of this Equatorial Guinea—the family business—did not conform to the norms of the Transparency Initiative. As Anton Smith wrote in one of his cables to Washington, “Among the Fang, family comes first.”
President Obiang acknowledged fathering forty-two children. Of these, two sons, Teodorin (“Little Theodore”) and Gabriel, wielded the most influence by 2009. They had different mothers. Teodorin’s, who was referred to as Obiang’s “church” or formal wife, belonged to an Equato-Guinean family that had risen alongside the president during the early oil era, grabbing up land and businesses. Gabriel’s mother came from the tiny neighboring island nation of São Tomé; she suffered from the lack of prestige that arose from being a foreigner. By kinship and political tradition, Teodorin, therefore, was the son who had the most natural claim to succeed his father as president, should his father’s health ever falter. The heir showed little interest in education or government work, however. Gabriel, on the other hand, had returned from college in the United States as a well-spoken, serious young man adept at PowerPoint presentations and the vernacular of international oil and gas deals. He told oil industry representatives that he had been influenced, in thinking about Equatorial Guinea’s future, by the American film Field of Dreams and its spiritual catchphrase “If you build it, he will come.” Gabriel hoped to construct an oil-led development strategy that would help the country develop a technically competent middle class and a more diverse economy akin to Singapore’s. ExxonMobil’s, Marathon’s, and Hess’s representatives fantasized that Gabriel might emerge as Obiang’s successor as president and lead a final drive toward modernization, protecting their investments along the way. But Gabriel lacked the Fang clan base necessary to secure his rise in politics. As one student of the country and the region put it coldly: After President Obiang’s death, Gabriel was more likely to be assassinated than promoted.
That left Teodorin, the first son, who had been born on June 26, 1969. As he entered middle age, he was a broad-shouldered man with dark chocolate skin and puffy cheeks, who had developed a taste for luxury goods and properties. Before oil, Equatorial Guinea’s most lucrative resource was the lumber in its jungle forests. Teodorin’s mother secured an appointment for her son as minister of agriculture and forestry; in that capacity, he told American officials, he was “granted” a concession to sell timber. During the 1990s, a Malaysian contractor retained by Teodorin brought in forty teams of lumberjacks who clear-cut and shipped out whole logs to Asian markets, leaving the minister with a multimillion-dollar grubstake while he was still in his twenties. Later, his family’s access to Equatorial Guinea’s oil wealth evidently enriched him further, although despite the Transparency Initiative, Obiang never made clear exactly how he allocated “national” revenues to Teodorin or other family members. What seemed plain was that as he neared middle age, Teodorin had easy access to many tens of millions of dollars. He began to travel and to spend.
By 2007, according to investigations by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement division and French police, Teodorin’s international property holdings included two luxury speedboats; a Gulfstream V private jet valued at $38.5 million; and a collection of almost three dozen luxury cars, including two $1.5 million Bugatti Veyrons, a $990,000 Maserati MC12, a $530,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom, a $256,000 Ferrari 512M, a $213,000 Ferrari 550 Maranello, and a $115,000 Maserati Coupe F1.
When American investigators came into possession of a check register from one of Teodorin’s California companies, Beautiful Vision Inc., they encountered the following list of expenditures for a single month: $82,900 to Naurelle for furniture; $137,313 to Ferrari of Beverly Hills; $63,326 to the Soofer Gallery for a carpet; another $332,243 to Ferrari of Beverly Hills; $51,288 to Dolce & Gabbana; $121,977 to Fields Piano; another $50,000 to Ferrari of Beverly Hills; another $59,850 to the Soofer Gallery; $280,409 to Autostar Signature for another Ferrari; $338,523 to Lamborghini Beverly Hills; and $181,265 to GlobalJet Corp.
Teodorin moved in and out of the United States on an A-1 diplomatic visa, often carrying more than $1 million in cash, which he routinely failed to declare to U.S. customs officers as required by law, according to the I.C.E. investigators. Los Angeles and New York were among his favored destinations; at one stage, Teodorin set up a record company in Los Angeles specializing in rap and hip-hop music, and for a while he traveled in the company of the glamorous rapper Eve. His spending and his migration into the hip-hop business suggested an air of danger and urban sophistication, but in person he could just as often come across as unworldly.
“He showed up in my office with his entourage—four or five people,” all from Equatorial Guinea, recalled an attorney in Los Angeles who worked with him. “His English wasn’t very good; he had other people who would do the language for him. He was willing to pay whatever was required. He would ask, ‘How much do you want?’ And the check was right there.”
Teodorin could be enthusiastic about laying out money for a new purchase or project, but his managerial follow-up was often lacking. Unpaid bills and civil lawsuits accumulated in Los Angeles County civil courts. Teodorin relied on American lawyers, real estate agents, personal assistants, bankers, bodyguards, and freelance fixers and hangers-on to manage his bills and his chaotic consumer habits. His American advisers took note that the luxury automobiles abandoned in Teodorin’s California garage would by themselves finance a respectable hospital back home. It was not unusual for Teodorin to lose track of his cars; in one case, he asked an adviser to fly across the country to Los Angeles to move one of them from a parking garage where he had absentmindedly abandoned it. Former assistants filed lawsuits in Santa Monica civil court alleging that Teodorin failed to pay overtime as required by California law; the defendant often missed court appearances and depositions.
After the failed coup attempt led by Simon Mann, Teodorin turned up at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel to do some house hunting. Through one of his Los Angeles attorneys, he summoned a Hollywood Hills real estate agent, Neal Baddin, to his suite. Baddin thought Teodorin seemed “bigger than life.” Baddin agreed to serve as his real estate agent, and over the next seventeen months, he helped negotiate the purchase of a $30 million Mediterranean estate on a fifty-foot bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, in Malibu. Teodorin’s neighbors in the gated community included James Cameron, the director of Titanic and Avatar, and the comedian Dick Van Dyke.
As the purchase closed, one of Teodorin’s Los Angeles attorneys contacted Paul Finestone of the Finestone Insurance Agency, seeking to buy a policy for the Malibu estate and thirty-two cars that would be housed there. The attorney explained that a number of American insurance companies had so far refused to sell Teodorin insurance; he asked Finestone to find a company willing to do business with the Obiang family.
When one insurer asked why Teodorin intended to employ armed security guards at his Malibu home, Finestone explained that his client was an “investor and collector” who was “independently wealthy” and needed guards to protect against kidnapping.
American International Group, Inc., which would gain notoriety for its role in the 2008 global financial crisis, refused to sell to Teodorin after learning about his background. Finestone wrote to A.I.G. to challenge the insurer’s decision. Equatorial Guinea, he wrote, “is a major supplier of oil to America and a critical interest of American energy needs.” President Obiang, Teodorin’s father, “is no better and no worse than the Saudi Royal family. . . . We insure billions and billions of dollars of Saudi property bought with our oil money here in America and A.I.G. has no problem handling a great deal of that business.”
America’s oil dependency required even Los Angeles insurance brokers to consider the relative virtues of corrupted oil alliances.
Several weeks after President Obama’s inauguration, the United States received intelligence reporting from Nigeria that some sort of an attack was being planned on high-level targets in Equatorial Guinea. Such reports were increasingly common. Piracy, oil smuggling, and speedboat militancy carried out mainly by armed Nigerians under the brand name of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (M.E.N.D.) continued to spread throughout the Gulf of Guinea.
That winter, ExxonMobil’s West African operations were on particularly high alert. In December, in Nigeria’s Akwa Ibom State, armed gangs had shot up an ExxonMobil caravan, apparently seeking to kidnap expatriate workers; Nigerian security guards returned fire and repelled the attackers. A month later, the guards were in action again, around the same housing compound in Eket where the traumatic kidnapping of 2006 had occurred; again, the ExxonMobil security force managed to ward off the assailants before they could reach any oil workers. Militants in speedboats also attacked an ExxonMobil oil platform in the ocean waters off Akwa Ibom. Malabo and its harbor lay only eighty-five miles by boat from Eket, straight across the Bight of Biafra—for speedboat-equipped militants and robbers, it was an easy commute.
In Equatorial Guinea, ExxonMobil, Marathon, and Hess had developed an e-mail system to distribute warnings about impending coups, invasions, or waterborne bank robberies in which armed men in speedboats arrived at Equatorial Guinea’s coastal cities to hold up banks and escape by sea. The oil companies’ security departments tended toward caution and often ordered lockdowns at their Malabo and mainland compounds on receipt of even fragmentary intelligence reports.
The United States continually earned credit with President Obiang—and partially compensated for the harping it made Obiang endure about human rights—by sharing warnings about invasions or coups. Typically, Obiang reacted to the warnings by erecting checkpoints around the capital, detaining foreigners, and otherwise tightening his already-heavy police deployments. These visible precautions taken after American intelligence warnings likely prevented some of the threatened attacks from going forward as planned. There was a boy-who-cried-wolf problem inherent in the repeated warnings and preemptions, however, particularly because there had been no serious coup-making attack on Obiang, beyond the plotting stage, in several years.
In the darkness of February 17, 2009, speedboats bearing armed men arrived in Malabo. Three boats entered the harbor; three others arrived on the eastern side of an adjoining peninsula. The attackers disembarked, unopposed, and headed toward the presidential palace, where, as it happened, the president was not home. (When Washington passed on its latest round of attack or coup warnings, President Obiang had quietly slipped out of Malabo to his better-fortified palace on the African mainland.) The Israeli trainers had planned for this moment—their Equato-Guinean charges were supposed to swarm in and counterattack to protect the palace and repel the invaders. In the event, the response was more ad hoc than the Israelis would have hoped. Senior ministers and generals who were supposed to lead the counterattack failed to turn up when the shooting started. Several younger officers did respond, however, and they fired vigorously, killing at least one raider, arresting others, and, after a two-hour gun battle, chasing the remainder of the group back to sea in their speedboats.
One of the younger Equato-Guineans who defended the presidential palace that night took a bullet in the hand. A few days later, as calm returned, President Obiang celebrated the soldier in public as a national hero. Obiang appointed a businessman to accompany the wounded hero to New York, to seek out the finest American surgeons available to repair the soldier’s hand. Lacking American health insurance cards, Obiang provided the soldier’s businessman escort with $125,000 in cash to pay for medical expenses. At John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, however, U.S. Customs officers discovered the cash in the businessman’s luggage. The money had not been properly declared, and the businessman was arrested on money-laundering charges. After some confusion and delay, the case was eventually cleared up.
The raiders, it turned out, had been Nigerian militants who had ties to a section of Obiang’s exiled political opposition in Spain, and who had been trying to sell protection services to sections of Equatorial Guinea’s government. The militants did not feel that their offer of protection was being taken seriously enough, so they had decided to mount a demonstration project in Malabo, to show that their services were indeed required if ExxonMobil and the other oil companies wanted to operate in security. What the attackers might have done if they had penetrated the presidential palace and found Obiang at home was not clear.
Barack Obama’s pronouncements about foreign policy during the 2008 election campaign suggested that he was prepared to rethink the Bush administration’s approach to governments that were hostile to the United States or that did not conform to American ideals about democracy and human rights. The Obama administration seemed to be signaling that it sought “dialogue and engagement,” as an ExxonMobil executive put it after the president’s inauguration. “They are saying that about Russia, they are saying that about China, they are saying that about Iran. . . . That is the cornerstone of their foreign policy.” Why not Equatorial Guinea, too? That was the basic question that Anton Smith had presented in the six analytical cables he filed from Malabo during the late winter and spring of 2009, hoping to redirect Obama administration policy toward deeper engagement.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s advisers included some energy “realists” such as those who had shaped her husband’s second-term policies aimed at securing oil supplies from Central Asia. Clinton named as a special energy policy envoy David Goldwyn, who, before joining State, had organized a business group designed to support Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s plans to reopen the Libyan oil business to international corporations—among them, ExxonMobil. To run Africa policy, Clinton named Johnnie Carson, a longtime foreign service officer who had served as U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe before his appointment by President Bush as national intelligence officer for Africa. Between Goldwyn’s background as an oil industry consultant and Carson’s deep experience of engagement with flawed African governments, Anton Smith’s arguments about Equatorial Guinea found at least some influential readers inclined to his views.
The human rights community saw an opportunity to mark a new course, too, but in a very different direction: “The new Obama administration has an opportunity to show that energy security does not have to come at the expense of human rights and good governance,” Human Rights Watch argued in a major report about Equatorial Guinea released that July. It recommended investigations to seize and repatriate to Equato-Guinean citizens’ assets in the United States “obtained through corruption,” and it recommended that Obama “ensure through new or existing laws and regulations that U.S. companies do not become complicit in the corruption and abuses that mar resource-rich countries like Equatorial Guinea.” The formulation suggested that ExxonMobil was not already complicit. Anton Smith attended a launch event around the Human Rights Watch report, where he said he “did not recognize” the Equatorial Guinea described by the report’s investigators, who had not visited the country in recent years, in part because it was difficult to do so without official sponsorship. Smith’s adversaries at Human Rights Watch and the advocacy group EG Justice were appalled by his remarks and his defense of the Obiang regime, and they argued privately to State officials that Smith was unfit to represent the United States in Malabo because he had evolved into an apologist for the regime.
As in other areas of foreign policy, the Obama administration proved conflicted about whether to pursue “realist” engagement with Equatorial Guinea or pursue a more liberal, activist agenda of the sort recommended by Human Rights Watch. The department did agree during 2009, as Smith had recommended, to upgrade its representation in Malabo by appointing a full complement of liaisons to Obiang: an experienced ambassador, a deputy chief of mission, and a defense attaché from the Pentagon. To some degree, Smith’s arguments prevailed: The Obama administration continued the policies of security, intelligence, and limited military engagement with Equatorial Guinea that the Bush administration had forged after the 2004 coup attempt. Yet American policy changed only in increments. There was no fundamental reexamination.
On May 4, 2009, Ken Cohen wrote to Human Rights Watch to describe and defend the corporation’s policies in Equatorial Guinea. “ExxonMobil is committed to being a good corporate citizen wherever we operate worldwide,” Cohen wrote. “We maintain the highest ethical standards, comply with all applicable laws and regulations, and respect local and national cultures.” At the same time, “the practical realities of doing business in developing countries are challenging. . . . E.G., like many developing nations, has a limited number of local businesses and a small population of educated citizens. . . . Many businesses have some family relations with a government official, and virtually all government officials have some business interests of their own, or through a close relative. . . .
“While it may be virtually impossible to do business in such countries without doing business with a government official or a close relative of a government official, it is still possible—indeed, it is expected—that we do business ethically and comply with all U.S. and local laws.”