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Interview with President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea

Aired October 05, 2012 - 15:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

He is the world's longest serving leader. His name is Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, and he's been the president of Equatorial Guinea on the west coast of Africa for over three decades.

Obiang seized power from his uncle back in 1979. That's the same year that Margaret Thatcher was elected in Great Britain and the same year the original Walkman was first released.

Since then, he's been reelected several times, in polls that were roundly derided by critics. He won close to 100 percent of the vote. His dirt-poor country suddenly struck it very rich more than a decade ago when it struck oil, bringing in billions of dollars to this tiny nation of only 700,000 people.

But experts say that extreme corruption, terrible mismanagement have prevented the wealth from reaching the people. Despite a GDP per capita on a par with some countries in western Europe, including Great Britain, the majority of the population of Equatorial Guinea lives in abject poverty.

The United Nations says half the people don't have access to clean drinking water or even electricity. Instead, the money seems to be going directly to the president and his big family.

"Forbes" estimates that Obiang's net worth is about $600 million. And his son's lavish lifestyle has brought a probe here in the United States and a money laundering investigation in France. French authorities have already seized a $180 million mansion and 11 luxury cars from Obiang's son, Teodorin.

Equatorial Guinea denies the allegations of corruption and just announced that it's suing France over this inquiry. President Obiang has been in New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly meetings. And I asked him about all of these allegations and also whether he would stick to his own constitutionally mandated plan for when to actually step down and leave power.


AMANPOUR: President Obiang, thank you for joining me here in the studio.


AMANPOUR: Tell me what oil has meant to your country. Billions of dollars have been pouring in to Equatorial Guinea since about 12 or 13 years now, and once you described it as like the manna from heaven that sustained the Jews in the desert, an Old Testament referral (sic).

OBIANG (through translator): First of all, I would like to thank you. You're a very, very prestigious reporter.

Your question is very important to me because oil has actually been a blessing to our nation because Equatorial Guinea was one of the poorest nations in the whole continent. Because we discovered oil, today we are now the third or fourth richest nation on the African continent and around the world.

AMANPOUR: Well, thank you for your explanation. And thank you for your compliment. But you know I'm a Western reporter, and I'm going to ask you some pesky questions.

So if you say that oil has benefited your country so much, how, then, do you account for the fact that some 80 percent of your country people are still in dire, dire poverty? They don't have access, many of them, to clean water. They make perhaps $2 a day. They don't all have electricity. And it's still very poor for the vast majority of your people in this tiny little country.

So why are people still so poor?

OBIANG (through translator): Those who do criticize us are basing their judgment on outdated information and certainly haven't visited Equatorial Guinea for themselves to find out about all the good things that are there.

For example, the information that the population of Equatorial Guinea is living below $1 a day, that's not true.

AMANPOUR: I said $2.

OBIANG (through translator): It's completely fabricated.

AMANPOUR: All right. So that is what you say as the president. But many independent organizations and independent diplomats say what I just said. And the question is why is so much money going into your account? Some $600 million according to -- according to independent organizations and observers.

OBIANG (through translator): The critics who are saying these things cannot show that I have so much money in my account. And just what accounts are they referring to? I don't have any special or private accounts. All this is false. It's completely invented.

AMANPOUR: How do you account for Equatorial Guinea being somewhere towards the very end of the list, in other words, the -- one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International? It's somewhere around 172 out of 183 countries.

OBIANG (through translator): I'll keep saying the same thing: critics are referring to the past. I can assure you that, today, Equatorial Guinea has actually improved on political liberties, on economic development and infrastructure.

AMANPOUR: Well, again, let me continue on this money situation. Your son, Teodorin, has been accused of corruption, embezzlement, extortion and money laundering. And the French authorities have issued an international arrest warrant for him on these money laundering charges.

OBIANG (through translator): I believe this is all the work of our enemies. First of all, my son, even before he became a politician, he's always been a businessman. He has his own private business activities.

But when he became a politician and entered into government, he produced an accounting of all of his properties, both here in the States as well as in France, all of which was actually acquired long before he got into government.

AMANPOUR: Well, then, the question is how does your son in Equatorial Guinea have a $180 million mansion -- this is in France -- 11 luxury cars - - Bugattis, Ferraris, Rolls-Royce, Maserati -- a $3 million clock and a lot of things in the United States adding up to about $315 million, mansions, jets, Ferraris, Michael Jackson memorabilia.

I mean, how does your son get that much money just as a minister?

OBIANG (through translator): I will say it again; he did not achieve all this as a minister. He was a businessman before he became a minister. He has his own businesses in Equatorial Guinea. And he has some companies in Malaysia as well. He has his personal finances that he manages, but there are no signs, or any proof that he had actually embezzled any in government property or government money.

The moment he became minister he contributed a great deal into the coffers of the government's administration.

AMANPOUR: Do you think corruption is a problem in your country?

OBIANG (through translator): The government has actually established laws that prohibit corruption and I believe that in Equatorial Guinea we are very serious about prosecuting anyone involved in corruption. So, no, it's not a problem in Equatorial Guinea.

AMANPOUR: All right. Well, I've allowed you to give your say and you've seen all the evidence that we have presented from the other side.

Now let me ask you about political situation there.

You are, I believe now, in your fourth term. Correct?

OBIANG (through translator): Possibly.

AMANPOUR: That's a long time. You've introduced yourself constitutional reforms and referendum which made a maximum of two 7-year terms. Under that equation, you should end your term by 2016. That will have left you in power by -- for about 30 years or so.

Will you step down when the constitutionally mandated time is up? Will you step down in 2016?

OBIANG (through translator): First of all, Western democratic nations cannot understand circumstances where someone stays in power for a long time. But in Africa, there exists what we call a person's charisma, because when I took power, it was in order to face a very difficult situation which was on the brink of exterminating the country.

The transformations I carried out were by consensus of all political forces in the country. They weren't laws I imposed, but decisions based on consensus with all the political parties in the nation and their leaders. Therefore as regards the problem of what the new constitution provides, which is only two terms, that's a reality that will be carried out at this time.

But, of course, because the law is the law, therefore, there are those who practice law and they will know exactly whether I should continue into the next phase or not, because the law may not take effect retroactively.

AMANPOUR: Oh, my goodness. You're raising the possibility of running again. But you yourself have got this -- have got this -- you just mentioned --


AMANPOUR: -- two 7-year -- and you're in your -- thinking of a fourth term?

OBIANG (through translator): It is not me. It's the people. The people decide.

AMANPOUR: Mr. President. There's a constitutional referendum, two 7-year terms.

Will you step down in 2016?

OBIANG (through translator): That's why I say it depends on the people.

AMANPOUR: How can it depend on the people? It's the law.

OBIANG (through translator): Because it's not a personal problem of my will, because we work based on the will of the people. The people decide. The people have approved the constitution, which determines the two terms.

But you have to take into account. that the law does not keep effect retroactively. Nevertheless, if the people decide that I can present myself in the next stage, in order to fulfill what the law says, that's the people's will.

AMANPOUR: Wow. Well, you're presenting a scenario where you could be in power forever.

OBIANG (through translator): I am not the one. It is the people.

AMANPOUR: Do you think the people want you to be in power for longer?

OBIANG (through translator): That's what the people will have to decide in the future.


AMANPOUR: And when we come back, the question of President Obiang's longevity, politically, of course. Will he let go of the country that he's held onto for over 30 years?

But before we take a break, Adjoguening is a hugely popular rapper who records and distributes his own underground music, singing about real life inside the dictatorship at the risk of his freedom and even his own life. That, of course, is in Equatorial Guinea. We'll be right back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. And now, more of my interview with President Obiang, the leader of Equatorial Guinea.

It's an issue that plagues so many African leaders. After 30 years in power and term limits that he himself set, does he actually have any plans to exit the stage?


AMANPOUR: Once upon a time, one of your ministers ,on one of the television stations that you run, likened you to God, basically said our president is God. Do you agree?

OBIANG (through translator): I can never present myself as God. I am a human being, a very modest one. And therefore, if a minister says I am God, how can a human being liken himself to God? These are things people express sometimes with no grounds.

AMANPOUR: Well, you know, I've been covering elections all over the world for a long time. And from what I gather from Equatorial Guinea, certainly what many of the independent observers say is that, frankly, there isn't democracy in your country, even though you promised it back in 1991.

And that all the opposition members, parties, the ones you talk about are either in jail during the elections or tortured or, you know, filling up the prisons, basically unable to mount any kind of credible political campaign.

Does that bother you?

OBIANG (through translator): Well, I don't have any proof that there is a single political leader of the opposition group in jail. And those who are in jail are not there for political crimes. They are in jail for petty crimes.

There is no persecution whatsoever of political leaders except for those who are actually involved in attempted coups to assassinate the president or to create the kind of problem that might upset constitutional bodies, because we believe in justice, which is impartial.

AMANPOUR: You may be one of the only ones who believe that, Mr. President.

Let me ask you, would you hand over power to your son? Is he your designated successor, Teodorin?

OBIANG (through translator): I will say to you that Equatorial Guinea is a democratic nation. It's not a monarchy. It is a republic. Therefore, if my son, if he aspires to become president, he will have to carry out his own campaign and win victory over the leaders of other political parties.

AMANPOUR: If you had a genuinely free and fair election, do you think you would win?

OBIANG (through translator): That doesn't depend on what I think.

AMANPOUR: I'm just asking you. You're a politician.

I know it's (inaudible).

OBIANG (through translator): It depends on the people.

AMANPOUR: Mr. President, I wonder if you're afraid of the popular will? And I ask you that because, in Equatorial Guinea, during the Arab Spring, during the uprisings which overthrew dictators north of your country -- Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, et cetera -- in Equatorial Guinea, it was banned on the state-controlled media, which is all the media.

OBIANG (through translator): Madam, that is false from our detractors, because there is no banning of the press in Equatorial Guinea. The international press, radio, television and the Internet are free in Equatorial Guinea. There is no prohibition whatsoever on any press in Equatorial Guinea.

Therefore, everyone in Equatorial Guinea is following current events around the world. There has been no prohibition.

AMANPOUR: Well, that's definitely not what we hear from people who are on the ground and people who are observing.

So we exist in a parallel reality, you and me (sic). I'm asking questions and you're telling me that everything I say is wrong and false. Who are these critics who you think are telling us falsehoods?

OBIANG (through translator): These are foreign critics, because I say those foreign critics have to come --

AMANPOUR: They do --

OBIANG (through translator): -- to Equatorial Guinea to talk to the people, to the population, to political party leaders. There is no prohibition on them having contact with political parties. Therefore, I say that these criticisms from abroad do not coincide with the reality in Equatorial Guinea.

AMANPOUR: Mr. President, have you heard of Aung San Suu Kyi? Do you know who she is?


AMANPOUR: You've never heard of Aung San Suu Kyi?


AMANPOUR: You told me you get all the news in Equatorial Guinea. She is the famous --

OBIANG (through translator): I have all the news, all the news.

AMANPOUR: She is the famous Burmese dissident from Myanmar, who was under house arrest for 15 of the last 20 years, now been elected to her country's parliament, because the old dictatorship is moving towards democracy.

There's a famous saying that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But she said that it's not power that corrupts, it's the fear of losing power that corrupts.

Are you afraid of losing power?

OBIANG (through translator): I can never have fear of losing power. Take Syria for example. If there were to be an uprising against me, as a matter of course, I would never oppose the people's decision. I would not defend myself to stay in power. That's my belief, my own decision. That's my way of being.

AMANPOUR: Well, you've agreed to come to us and have this great interview, so why don't I give you the opportunity to then tell your people that, at the end of this two -- at the end of this 7-year term, which will have been your fourth term, you will step down and you will allow your country a real chance at democracy?

OBIANG (through translator): I have been elected by the people. Therefore, I cannot betray the people's will. But the people must express themselves against me for me to step down. But I say that the fact that I established two terms in the constitution, that was my will, because you can't stay in power forever.

And if I did that, it's because I do believe that one day I will have to step down. I will have to step down some day. I believe this sincerely.

AMANPOUR: And presumably you were sincere when you made this popular referendum. The people must have voted for this. It was a referendum. Or somebody must have voted for this.

So --

OBIANG (through translator): Yes, of course.

AMANPOUR: So we're talking in circles, because the people have already ratified your referendum. They've already said that two 7-year terms and basta. So why not say that you'll abide by that -- by that law, by the popular will?

OBIANG (through translator): That's what I'm saying. The people have ratified the constitution. The people have to amend the laws in order to confirm that the president cannot continue, because the law is not retroactive.

AMANPOUR: What is your relationship with the United States? There are lots of oil companies coming to Equatorial Guinea. You have met President and Ms. Obama. What is your relationship with the United States and how dependent is the U.S. on Equatorial Guinea's oil?

OBIANG (through translator): I am an admirer of the United States because of its liberties. I remember that one American ambassador was actually ejected from my country. But I was the one who negotiated the return of the American embassy to Equatorial Guinea.

So thanks to U.S. investment, Equatorial Guinea today is a benchmark nation. The American investment in my country does not have any hidden agenda like the ones I've seen from other nations. These are very transparent investments.

That's why I believe that the United States can save a lot of other African nations who suffer from dire poverty, because Equatorial Guinea has overcome the situation of dire poverty thanks to the investment of the American companies.

That's why I not only admire the freedom of the American people, but also the determination of its business people when they decide to invest.

AMANPOUR: The statistic for the GDP per capita for Equatorial Guinea is exactly the same as it is in Great Britain, around $35,000 per person per year. That's a lot, because especially you don't have very many people in your country. So presumably everybody could be really well off and rich. But they're not. They're not. They're poor.

OBIANG (through translator): We cannot use money from the natural resources as a Christmas gift to the people. The government offers the people credit. It builds public housing, hospitals, schools, roads and airports to transform the country.

Therefore, there is a sector of the population that has entered the business world and the government is promoting the national businesses to transform the country in order to avoid monopolies by foreign companies.

I think this is a task the government is working on right now. At the end of this week, we'll be holding a conference to address the labor issue. Why? Because there is a sector of the population that doesn't have work, because foreign companies intend to introduce foreign workers. And we want all people from Equatorial Guinea to be hired at these companies and not foreign workers.

AMANPOUR: President Obiang, thank you very much for joining me.

OBIANG (through translator): Gracias.


AMANPOUR: President Obiang sat here and answered all my questions, and I found it an incredibly fascinating insight into the mind of an unchallenged supreme leader.

When we come back, we'll imagine a world from President Obiang's unique point of view. Stay with us.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, I want to show you my last exchange with President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea.


AMANPOUR: Who is the fellow world leader who you admire the most?

OBIANG (through translator): In Africa, I admire Nelson Mandela, because he has carried out very important work. I admire leaders who have stood out in the world and who have worked for world development.


AMANPOUR: Nelson Mandela. And now imagine a world where even a strong man not only has his heroes but actually emulates them.

That's it for this edition of our program. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.