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The gateway to Africa

Interview - May 27, 2015

H. E. Minister Agapito Mba Mokuy speaks about where the country comes from, where it is going and the opportunities it can offer to interested investors and businessmen.


46 years after its independence, Equatorial Guinea is living one of its most prosperous times in its history. By keeping peace and political stability, the country is becoming an example of governance in Africa. What challenges should Equatorial Guinea overcome to reach its Horizon 2020 Plan of becoming an emerging country by that year?

Before discussing the challenges, I would like to talk about the history of Equatorial Guinea, a country that is emerging. I think it is important to remind everyone where Equatorial Guinea comes from, before discussing the opportunities and challenges the country is facing today. I think this will allow us to really assess the important issues this country has. Equatorial Guinea is located in Western Africa and had its independence in 1968, which is relatively recent compared to other leading countries that have been independent for centuries, and had enough time to develop. It is important to say that when Equatorial Guinea gained its independence in 1968, this country lacked even the most basic things. The 1970s saw the birth of many African countries, but not all of them were born the same way; some countries already had a certain structure when they became independent, they had professionals, they had the ability to rule themselves. Equatorial Guinea, in 1968, only had professionals on the undergraduate level. The country didn't even have professional education, not to mention universities, which many African countries already had. Equatorial Guinea didn't have a governance culture, because Guineans were not educated to rule, that was reserved only for the colonists. This happened even in the plantations: Guineans didn't even have the ability to run a cocoa or a coffee farm.

It is under those conditions that we gained our independence in 1968. What happened immediately afterwards was more than evident, you didn't have to be a prophet to realise that a country can't survive under those circumstances. So, it happened what everybody could anticipate: we gained our independence and the president of the time, with all this trouble turned into a dictator. So, from 1968 and for 11 years this country had a dictatorship where it lost what little was left. I could experience some of that: the churches were closed, we went to class but there were no actual schools. Those were the conditions in which president Obiang found the country when he came into power in 1979. It was not easy. To destroy is easy, but it takes time to build, it's a process that requires patience and endurance. That's where we come from.

We reach the 1990s, when oil was discovered and all the progress that you can see now in the country has happened in that short period of time between then and now. Many people say it's only because of oil, but I don't think so. What made the president to be patient and look for oil is the same thing as the reason for today's development. Contrary to what many newspapers say, it is good management, because that is what makes you have goals. He had goals, he wanted to put the country in a certain direction but didn't have the means, so he looked for them. No one could discover oil in Equatorial Guinea, and he used to say “How is it possible that Gabon, Nigeria, and even Cameroon have oil, and Equatorial Guinea, which is right in the middle, doesn't have any? I'm going to keep looking”. So he called the Americans, and there came a gentleman named Walter who brought the first American company. He said, “Mr. President, you have oil and we will help you find it”. I worked as an accountant in that company, I was studying in the United States, and my first job here, apart from the United Nations, was working as an accountant at Walter International. This man changed the reality of Equatorial Guinea, he said he would help the President, so how can people expect the President to forget about the Americans who helped him in that predicament?

So when the president found oil, he decided to build this country, and for that he has established a program which I think is unique, not only in Africa, but in the whole world. Usually, developing countries focus on the capital city or in the main economic cities, but in Equatorial Guinea we have a real integral development. Just as we're building in Malabo, we're also building in Bata, in Mbini, in Kogo, in Mongomo, everywhere. I think Equatorial Guinea is nowadays one of the few African countries that have modern highways as in any other country in the world. The President outlined this plan and called everyone to tell us, “We have oil, I do not want to make the same mistakes we have made in the past, what can we do?” He organized a conference in which it was decided that oil resources were going to be used in a certain way. A second conference was organized to analyse how to use the country's resources, and from there comes the idea of 2015 as a deadline to develop the infrastructure. As we are now finishing the basic infrastructure, we now have to move to the second stage, which is the industrialization: the Horizon 2020 Program.

This is a bit of an outline of what has happened in the past and our direction for the future. So, what are the difficulties and challenges of Equatorial Guinea? One of the most severe is people's education. All those years of general destruction have really affected the people's psychologies. If a person is accustomed to serve, then their children will also serve. Then President Obiang came and told them that they could now be owners. These people were troubled because their grandfathers served, and their fathers also taught them they had to serve someone else. This process takes time, and during that time many people wanted Equatorial Guinea to become overnight like the United States, or France, or any other country. How can we make this happen? With democracy and development. But we're finding difficulties educating our population for them to be up to the task, and keep up with the development that the country is currently experiencing.

So we have to educate the people globally for them to move towards that development. We have a population which, as I told you, didn't run companies, weren't managers of anything, or didn't even go to school, and suddenly we tell them they must own companies, go to school, have a diploma, compete. It will take time. And the president knows that this is our goal, but he also knows that we must get there gradually.

Equatorial Guinea has, like any other country, a problem of international politics, because there is a general international injustice to small countries. I think it's a natural injustice: in life, people have to fight to earn their daily bread for them and their families. So those who have always been stronger will use the advantage of their position to crush those who are smaller, I think it's human nature. But the consequences of this are absorbed by small countries like Equatorial Guinea. When these struggles happen, those who are trying to rise are a bad example, because if there's a international power that wants, say, five countries to behave in a certain way and suddenly there's one which behaves differently, then the other four will ask themselves, “Hey, if Equatorial Guinea has highways, aeroplanes, factories, why can't we also have them?” This is the international reality and the main difficulty of Equatorial Guinea, a country that is doing by itself something almost unseen in the rest of Africa. The people of Africa were educated to be permanently dependent, but President Obiang is proving that this is not true, you can be independent, be a friend of your people, and push the country forward. We're proving it can be done, and this of course won't please everybody in the international arena, so we're exposing ourselves as the country that proves that Africa can also develop.

So, they will seek to weaken our position through different means, for example by saying that we are in a dictatorship. A journalist asked me about this once, and I told him: "If a dictator is someone who builds highways in a continent where that's almost unheard of, if a dictator is a president who provides his people with water, or who gives electric power to a country that didn't have any, if a dictator is a person who creates airlines when no other country in the region has one or who makes his people go to college, then I publicly declare that I'd rather have a dictator, because for me this is the definition of a person who wants to make his country progress”. The international pressure on Equatorial Guinea constitutes as the biggest obstacle for a country that wants to develop and show the world what it can accomplish.

What's happening now with the oil issue, for example: who says this is not a strategy aimed to affect certain countries, which ultimately affects everyone? Once again, the difficulties of the international arena are the real obstacle. The wars happening around the world have been triggered to create distractions from the development of progressive countries like Equatorial Guinea. The UN peacekeepers haven't solved a single international conflict, these people are not giving lessons, they're creating a system so that countries can't progress. Because President Obiang is determined to transform Equatorial Guinea into something different, we're overcoming these difficulties.

You have been blessed with oil, and have been able to lay the groundwork for an infrastructure to benefit the people of Equatorial Guinea. As you mentioned, the second phase of the Horizon 2020 Plan involves the diversification and industrialization of the country, and it has established certain priority sectors for this. What opportunities would you like to highlight to the international audience about the potential of these sectors?

I think the first thing I would mention is the opportunities that Equatorial Guinea gives to the international community. Our country can offer an unparalleled peace, enviable in all of Africa. Peace is the core element for investment and Equatorial Guinea can provide it, so for this reason we can offer an important market for potential investors. Equatorial Guinea is a member of the French Community in Africa, with more than 150 million people. It's also a member of the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries, an important community of African countries which also includes Portugal and Brazil, and even includes China indirectly through Macao. So an investor establishing in Equatorial Guinea should not assess the country only by its surface, but by the market it offers. It can be an area where they can invest to benefit from the market that Equatorial Guinea can offer, and it can actually work as a springboard. And because we speak Spanish, it can also provide a platform for all Spanish-speaking countries to use it as a link or gateway into the African continent.

Equatorial Guinea offers an important purchasing power for business. Discovering oil has given us purchasing power and I think any businessman should be interested in that. I think that our philosophy of independence and development is good for those who come to do business. There is a consistency to our decisions. At the infrastructure level, the country is in an enviable situation in the region, for example regarding our road system. We have airports and important ports in very good condition, we have highways, and we have fiber-optic communications being developed - because we live in a globalised world. I think these are conditions that allow for a very good investment climate, and we offer these opportunities to anyone who wants to invest and to the entire international community. Finally, Equatorial Guinea is playing a central role in Africa nowadays because of the major conferences being held here. So anyone can use the country as a centre where you can easily meet with several dignitaries at a time and that is important for the business climate and in the international politics arena.

Does Equatorial Guinea have the ambition of establishing itself as a regional leader?

Equatorial Guinea has no ambitions to become the leader of anything; our sole ambition is to provide a decent and respectable way of life for our citizens. We want to progress, we want to achieve the development we deserve and, yes, this may lead to leadership, though certainly that's not our goal. We want welfare for our people, and that's why as a policy we don't involve in the internal affairs of other countries, which is something our President always insists on.

How would you describe the current relations between the United States and Equatorial Guinea, and how could the United States continue to help the country?

First of all, I must say that Equatorial Guinea highly appreciates the cooperation of the United States. As I've said before, it is thanks to the US that we got the oil and therefore our current economic development, so we can't forget this important gesture from the United States. We respect them like the power it is, and how it is cooperating with Equatorial Guinea, especially in the economic aspect. Therefore our relationship is very good. In terms of opportunities, President Obiang has said that in the same way they have helped us in the oil sector, there are other sectors in Equatorial Guinea that could benefit from the expertise of the Americans. We want to encourage other American investors to come, because there's proof that you can invest in Equatorial Guinea and make a profit. A sector such as agriculture could benefit from American investment. The United States has industrialized agriculture, there's a lot we can learn from that, because we need to use the technology and the US is a leader in all the technological aspects of agriculture. The investment in the fields of agriculture and the processing of agricultural products will help us, and we will learn from that, but they can be sure that just as they have invested in the oil sector, they can also invest in agriculture and in virtually any other sector as well. We hope that the rest of the countries realise that if the United States is investing here, then any country can do it too.

President Obama has said that "The rise of Africa means opportunity for all of us, including the opportunity to transform the relationship between the United States and Africa. It's time for a new model of partnership between America and Africa: a partnership of equals”. What priorities would you point in this regard?

I would like to reflect on what President Obama has said. I think there are two things you can derive from it: The future is in Africa, because Africa has the natural resources and the human resources. Africa has the youngest population in the world, and the most eager to educate itself. With all these elements, the position of Africa in the future is unquestionable. I believe that President Obama can see this and invites Americans to realise that Africa is the future. China has realised it as well, and is therefore strategically investing here, because we have everything we need for the future progress of all continents. There are many countries that have yet to notice this, but they're wasting their time, because this is the moment to seize the opportunity and position in what will become the future. President Obama is inviting his fellow citizens and leaders to know that Africa will not continue to be what it has been in the past. The world has changed, Africa has changed, and this is the moment to invest in our continent. There are opportunities for those who invest and position the way China is doing, and the US is trying to as well. We live in a new world where Africa will make a difference.

Which values would you like Equatorial Guinea to be associated with?

Equatorial Guinea is a country that gives priority to its people, its citizens, and that values the human being. In the same way we want welfare for Guineans, this country also wants the best for all mankind. So it would be nice for Equatorial Guinea to be recognized for what it is: a peaceful country, a country that respects human beings, a country that doesn't want to get into other countries' internal affairs because it is not greedy, it is a country that seeks equality and respect for everyone, whatever their belief, race, religion, or culture is. I think this sums up the political philosophy that drives our president, and that represents our people. Equatorial Guinea is a hospitable, receptive country and a country with such features is peaceful by definition.

If you had to describe Equatorial Guinea in five words, what would those words be?

Equatorial Guinea is insisting in diversifying its economy. In the beginning we had nothing, we looked, and we could find oil. Now that we have it, we can seek the ultimate goal of achieving welfare for our people. But dependence on only one product is a fragile situation. Based on that economic theory, certainly Equatorial Guinea is looking for a diversification of its economy. But what really represents what Equatorial Guinea actually is as a country, is the fight for freedom, for the welfare of its citizens, and for national and international peace. We think these elements are prerequisites for progress and development. This represents Equatorial Guinea: a country that wants peace and has no involvement in the affairs of other countries, because that means greed, selfishness, and power, values that are not representative of what we are.