Equatorial Guinea holds regular elections, but the voting is neither free nor fair. The current president, who took power in a military coup that deposed his uncle, has led a highly repressive authoritarian regime since 1979. Oil wealth and political power are concentrated in the hands of the president’s family. The government frequently detains the few opposition politicians in the country, cracks down on civil society groups, and censors journalists. The judiciary is under presidential control, and security forces engage in torture and other violence with impunity.
- In January, two judges were arrested without warrants and dismissed by presidential decree. A former head of the Supreme Court who had spoken out against government corruption and violations of judicial independence narrowly avoided arrest in February and later fled the country.
- In August, the prime minister and cabinet submitted their resignations after the president criticized them for economic mismanagement. However, nearly all of the same officials were included in the new cabinet later that month.
- The government effectively expelled a World Health Organization (WHO) representative from the country in May, accusing her of inflating data on COVID-19 infections. By year’s end, more than 5,200 cases and 86 deaths had been confirmed. Also during the year, authorities disbanded two religious organizations for allegedly violating social-distancing rules and arrested a nurse for privately raising her concerns about lack of oxygen in a hospital, and several journalists were suspended for reporting that security forces had beaten people while enforcing lockdown regulations.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
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President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Africa’s longest-serving head of state, has held power since 1979. He was awarded a new seven-year term in the 2016 presidential election, reportedly winning 93.5 percent of the vote. The main opposition party at the time, Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS), boycotted the election, and other factions faced police violence, detentions, and torture. One opposition figure who had been barred from running for president, Gabriel Nsé Obiang Obono, was put under house arrest during the election, and police used live ammunition against supporters gathered at his home.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
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The bicameral parliament consists of a 70-seat Senate and a 100-seat Chamber of Deputies, with members of both chambers serving five-year terms. Fifteen senators are appointed by the president, 55 are directly elected, and there can be several additional ex officio members. The Chamber of Deputies is directly elected.
In the 2017 legislative elections, the ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) and its subordinate allied parties won 99 seats in the lower house, all 55 of the elected seats in the Senate, and control of all municipal councils. The opposition Citizens for Innovation (CI), led by Nsé Obiang, took a single seat in the Chamber of Deputies and a seat on the capital’s city council. The preelection media environment was tightly controlled, and a wave of arrests of CI supporters began when police dispersed an opposition rally ahead of the vote. Among other irregularities on election day, a ban on private vehicles prevented many voters from reaching distant polling stations, and polls closed one hour earlier than scheduled.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
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Equatorial Guinea does not have an independent electoral body; the head of the National Election Commission during the 2017 elections was also the country’s interior minister and a member of the PDGE. Elections are not fairly managed in practice.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
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The PDGE is the dominant party, operating in conjunction with a number of subordinate parties in its coalition. The opposition CI was officially banned as a political party in 2018, and its members face imprisonment and regular threats of imprisonment by the state.
Other opposition leaders and members are also subject to arrest, detention, and trial. Two members of the Coalition for the Restoration of Democracy (CORED), who were seized in Togo, and dissident members of the ruling PDGE were among a group of 130 defendants tried in March 2019 for their alleged involvement in a 2017 coup attempt. Opposition leaders living in exile were tried in absentia. The court ultimately convicted 112 people and imposed harsh prison terms in May 2019. After appeals, the convictions were confirmed by the Supreme Court in November 2020.
Among other recent cases, CPDS member Luis Mba Esono was detained without charge in July 2019 and released in February 2020. Separately, the opposition Movement for the Liberation of Equatorial Guinea 3rd Republic (MLGE3R) reported in November 2019 that four of its members had been abducted in South Sudan. They were transferred to Equatorial Guinea, and in March 2020 a military court convicted them along with six others on treason and spying charges.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
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Equatorial Guinea has never experienced a peaceful transfer of power through elections. President Obiang appointed his son, Teodoro “Teodorín” Nguema Obiang Mangue, as vice president in 2016, paving the way for a dynastic succession.
There was no opposition representative in the legislature as of 2020. Jesús Mitogo Oyono, then CI’s only lower house member, was not allowed to return to his seat after he was imprisoned on charges of sedition in 2018, even though he was pardoned and released later that year. He sought asylum in the United States in May 2020 and was expelled from the party.
In July 2020, the opposition Center Right Union (UCD) agreed to enter the ruling party’s coalition, and UCD leader Avelino Mocache Menga was appointed as secretary of state for fisheries and water resources in August.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
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The regime routinely uses the security forces to attack and intimidate opposition supporters, and political loyalty to the ruling party is treated as a condition for obtaining and keeping public-sector employment.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
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The ethnic Fang majority dominates political life in Equatorial Guinea, leaving minority ethnic groups with little influence; power is concentrated in the hands of the president’s family and allies from their region of origin in particular. Women formally enjoy equal political rights, holding a few positions in government, 23 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and 17 percent of the seats in the Senate. However, they have little opportunity to independently advocate for their interests or organize politically. While no law explicitly prevents LGBT+ people from exercising their political rights, societal discrimination discourages them from participating openly and advocating for their communities.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
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The executive branch—headed by the president, who is not freely elected—sets and implements government policy, leaving the legislature with no meaningful role in the policymaking process.
In August 2020, the president accepted the resignation of the prime minister and cabinet after criticizing them for mismanagement of the economy and failing to address other pressing problems. However, most of the ministers were reappointed days later, including Prime Minister Francisco Pascual Obama Asue, who had held his post since 2016. Some observers attributed the incident to factional struggles within the ruling elite.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
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There are no independent anticorruption mechanisms, and the government is marred by nepotism and graft. Hiring and promotions within the government, army, and civil service favor those with ties to the president and his family. One of the president’s sons, Gabriel Mbega Obiang Lima, is the minister of mines and hydrocarbons, granting him sweeping control over the country’s natural resources and chief source of revenue. Teodorín, the vice president, has been the focus of money-laundering investigations in multiple countries for several years. In 2017, a French court convicted him of money-laundering charges in absentia, handing him a suspended sentence and a suspended $34 million fine. The court also seized his assets in France, including a luxurious building in Paris, which the government of Equatorial Guinea claimed belonged to its diplomatic presence; this was denied by the host country, and the International Court of Justice upheld France’s position in December 2020.
The government has taken some steps to address corruption in response to international pressure. It ratified the UN Convention against Corruption in 2018 and the African Union’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption in 2019. In November 2019, a government commission was formed to draft legislation that would bring the country into compliance with both conventions. The government also committed to strengthening its anticorruption efforts in order to receive a loan from the International Monetary Fund in December 2019; however, the measures laid out in the anticorruption plan were not fully implemented during 2020.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
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The government’s budget process and procurement system are opaque, as are the finances of state-owned companies. A significant percentage of revenue from the country’s oil reserves are funneled to Obiang’s allies through noncompetitive, nontransparent construction contracts, often for projects of questionable value. International financial organizations and human rights groups have criticized the government for pouring resources into wasteful infrastructure initiatives while neglecting health and social spending.
The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) agreed to consider Equatorial Guinea’s latest application for membership in 2019, but in February 2020 the EITI board concluded that the government had provided inadequate evidence of its commitment to transparency requirements.
The authorities repeatedly attempted to suppress information about both the COVID-19 pandemic and the official response during 2020. In May, the government forced the WHO to withdraw its representative from the country, accusing her of inflating the case count. The move disrupted the reporting of data for several weeks.
|Are there free and independent media?
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Press freedom is severely limited, despite constitutional protections. Most journalists consistently exercise self-censorship, and those who do criticize the regime are subject to dismissal and other reprisals. The country’s only private television and radio broadcaster, RTV-Asonga, is controlled by Teodorín. The handful of private newspapers and magazines in operation face intense financial and political pressure and are unable to publish regularly. The government has sought to block access to the websites of opposition parties and exile groups since 2013, and online versions of Spanish newspapers are regularly blocked. The government has obstructed access to the internet in times of political tension.
In April 2020, seven journalists from an Asonga TV talk show were suspended after they aired images of soldiers beating a man who had allegedly violated COVID-19-related movement restrictions.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
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The constitution protects religious freedom, though in practice it is sometimes affected by the country’s broader political repression and endemic corruption. The Roman Catholic Church is the dominant faith and is exempt from registration and permit requirements that apply to other groups. Government officials have reportedly been required to attend Catholic masses on ceremonial occasions, such as the president’s birthday.
In April 2020, the government issued a decree to disband two religious groups on the grounds that they did not comply with COVID-19-related bans on church services and other gatherings. The decree took effect without due process and included deportation orders for foreign pastors associated with the groups.
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 because the government abruptly disbanded two religious groups without due process, accusing them of violating COVID-19-related restrictions.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
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Academic freedom is politically constrained, and self-censorship among faculty is common. University professors and teachers have reportedly been hired or dismissed due to their political affiliations.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
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Freedoms of personal expression and private discussion are restricted. The government uses informants and electronic surveillance to monitor members of the opposition, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and journalists, including the few members of the foreign press in the country. Critics of the government are subject to arbitrary arrest, physical abuse, and trumped-up charges.
In April 2020, a nurse was arrested after using WhatsApp to express concerns to a friend about the lack of oxygen in a Malabo hospital; the message was shared widely beyond its original recipient. The nurse was released later in the month.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
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Freedom of assembly is severely restricted. Opposition gatherings are typically blocked or dispersed by security forces, and citizens are sometimes pressured to attend progovernment events.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
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All associations must register with the government through an onerous process, and independent NGOs face state persecution. In 2019, the Center for Studies and Initiatives for the Development of Equatorial Guinea (CEID-GE) was dissolved by government decree just a few months after its leader was placed under house arrest to prevent him from receiving a human rights award at a ceremony hosted by the French and German embassies.
Two civic activists who had been arrested in separate cases in 2019, Joaquín Eló Ayeto and Luis Nzó, were released in February and March 2020, reportedly without explanation. In May, however, a group of soldiers stormed Eló Ayeto’s house in an apparent act of intimidation.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
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The constitution provides for the right to organize unions, but there are many legal and practical barriers to union formation, collective bargaining, and strikes. The government has refused to register a number of trade unions; a farmers’ organization is the only legal union.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
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The judiciary is not independent, and judges in sensitive cases often consult with the office of the president before issuing important rulings. Under the constitution, the president is the nation’s first magistrate. He also oversees the body that appoints judges. The court system’s impartiality is further undermined by corruption.
In January 2020, Antonio Ondo Abaga Maye, a judge in Malabo, was arrested without a warrant on orders from the government, apparently because he had released two individuals in an investigation under his purview. He was allegedly tortured while in detention. Separately that month, another judge, Ruben Fernando Mba Obama Mangue, was also arrested without a warrant, and both were subsequently removed from their positions by presidential decree.
In February, security forces surrounded the home of former Supreme Court president Juan Carlos Ondó Angué, but the arrival of Spanish, French, and US diplomats reportedly prevented his arrest; he was accused of involvement in the alleged 2017 coup attempt. Ondó Angué had been dismissed from his judicial post in 2018 after expressing support for a colleague who had allegedly resisted a government-backed corruption scheme and then died in detention. After the incident at his home, Ondó Angué went into hiding and fled the country.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
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Security forces routinely detain people without charge. Those who are tried can be subjected to proceedings that lack due process. In 2019, as the trial against alleged participants in the 2017 coup attempt was underway, President Obiang unilaterally appointed new magistrates and prosecutors by decree. The American Bar Association (ABA), which observed the trial, noted a dearth of evidence against the accused and reported that a military officer in the audience was seen relaying messages to prosecutors and judges. The court convicted 112 of the defendants despite these failings, with some receiving 97-year prison sentences, and the verdicts were upheld on appeal in November 2020.
Military courts, which are empowered to try civilians for certain crimes, have even fewer due process protections than civilian courts and lack an avenue for appeal. In March 2020, a military court convicted 10 people suspected of links to MLGE3R after a closed-door trial held in a prison facility. They were found guilty of treason, espionage, and verbal abuse and insult of the head of state, receiving sentences of up to 90 years in prison.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
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Beatings and torture by security forces are reportedly common. Defendants who were tried in 2019 for alleged involvement in the 2017 coup attempt claimed that they were tortured in an effort to extract confessions. The ABA reported that two of the defendants died in custody. Prisons are overcrowded and feature harsh conditions, including physical abuse, poor sanitation, and denial of medical care.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
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Women face discrimination in employment and other matters, particularly in rural areas. Ethnic minority groups such as the Bubi, Ndowe, and Annobonese suffer persistent societal discrimination in the form of harassment from law enforcement officials or difficulties accessing public services.
Immigrants, including irregular migrants, are subject to raids, physical abuse, and extortion by police. Same-sex sexual activity is not illegal, but LGBT+ people face social stigma and mistreatment including street harassment, discrimination in the workplace, and forced pregnancies.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
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Freedom of movement is protected by law but restricted in practice through measures such as police checkpoints, which often require the payment of bribes. Authorities have denied opposition members and other dissidents reentry from abroad or restricted their movements within the country.
Amid the travel restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, individuals with dual nationality who were trying to return to their countries of residency abroad were pressured to give up their Equatoguinean nationality at the airport.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
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Pervasive corruption and onerous bureaucratic procedures serve as major impediments to private business activity. Property rights are inconsistently respected by the government, which is known to seize land and offer little recourse for those affected. Members of the Bubi minority have reported cases of land grabs by elites and the government in recent years.
Most women face disadvantages regarding inheritance and property rights under both the civil code and customary practices, though women enjoy greater customary rights among the Bubi.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
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The civil code and customary law put women at a disadvantage with respect to personal status matters like marriage and child custody, with some exceptions among the Bubi. Laws against rape and domestic violence are not enforced effectively. The government does little to collect data, raise awareness, or support civil society efforts to combat such problems, which include sexual violence against minors and LGBT+ people. Child marriage is common, with the UN Children’s Fund estimating that 30 percent of Equatoguinean women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before age 18. The Education Ministry requires female students to take pregnancy tests and bars pregnant girls from attending school.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
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The country’s oil wealth is concentrated among the ruling elite, leaving much of the population without access to basic services. Equatorial Guinea continues to score poorly on social and economic development indicators, and economic conditions have worsened amid low oil prices in recent years.
Foreign workers in the oil and construction industries and a variety of other sectors are subject to passport confiscation and forced labor. Equatoguineans from rural areas are also vulnerable to forced labor, including in the sex trade. Corrupt officials are often complicit in human trafficking, according to the US State Department.