Human rights groups have condemned The Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) and Spain’s national football (soccer) club for accepting an invitation to play a friendly (exhibition) match in the central African nation of Equatorial Guinea, citing widespread reports of torture and embezzlement by that country’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.
Inside Spanish Football reported that Spain (the reigning World Cup and European champs) and Equatorial Guinea officials agreed to a match scheduled for Nov. 16 in the capital city of Malabo. In addition, Spanish officials have agreed to “forego the customary financial compensation as a means of strengthening relations with the former Spanish territory,” according to the Equatorial Guinea government. (The country was once called “Spanish Guinea” and served as a Spanish colonial possession until 1968).
“The great news is confirmed,” said Francisco Pascual Obama Asue, the Equatorial Guinean government’s minister of youth and sport. “The Spanish team, the current world champion, has agreed to play without any financial compensation, thanks to the excellent cultural relations of friendship and co-operation between Spain and our country.” Asue said the Spaniards would “enjoy very special attention” at a luxurious estate in Sipopo. Spain’s 55-member delegation will stay at Sipopo, a controversial resort town constructed at enormous expense and opened in 2011.
However, some African human rights activists have warned that playing a friendly game in Equatorial Guinea would be tantamount to supporting the “authoritarian regime” of Obiang, who seized power in a military coup in 1979 and ranks as one of the world’s longest serving rulers. Tutu Alicante, the director of a local human rights group called Equatorial Guinea Justice, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper, “I cannot imagine England deciding to play a friendly against the Zimbabwean national team while Robert Mugabe is in power. Using huge sporting events like this one, or bringing [Spanish singer] Julio Iglesias to sing [which Obiang did last summer], or organizing multimillion-dollar beauty pageant competitions are the kinds of magnanimous distractions that dictators like to use to keep poor people happy.”
Critics have charged Obiang of plundering the nation’s oil wealth for the benefit of himself and some of his top cronies, while the overwhelming majority of people in the country live in dire poverty. Alicante added: “We have one of the worst cases of economic apartheid going on in Equatorial Guinea at this moment. How can the Spanish justify showing up to play football there? How can they not realize that their presence is only going to bolster the image and credibility of the corrupt authoritarian regime of the longest serving president in the world?”
Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog, characterizes Equatorial Guinea as one of the most corrupt nations on earth. Also, from a purely sporting perspective, Equatorial Guinea's national football team is woeful -- it ranked 119th in the world by FIFA, soccer’s governing body.
Separately, according to a report in Eurosport, Equatorial Guinea has offered its team bonus incentives totaling €5 million ($6.7 million) if they can defeat the powerful Spanish club. According to reports, the huge offer was made by second Vice-President Teodoro Nguema Obiang, the son of the President.
The Sipopo luxury resort, where the Spanish team members will stay, features 52 luxury presidential villas, a conference hall, an artificial beach, a luxury hotel and an 18-hole golf course -- all in a country where 75 percent of the people are living on less than $1 a day, despite significant oil and gas wealth generated since the mid-1990s.
According to the Oil & Gas Journal, Equatorial Guinea had proved oil reserves of 1.1 billion barrels in January 2012. The International Monetary Fund estimated that the hydrocarbon sector accounts for more than 90 percent of government revenue and about 98 percent of export earnings. However, critics charge that Obiang has embezzled much of the wealth generated by these natural riches.
Of graver concern, Obiang has allegedly ordered the torture and enforced disappearances of hundreds of his political opponents. “The authorities in Equatorial Guinea are heading a terrifying detention campaign targeting anyone who dares compete with them in the elections,” said Noel Kututwa, Amnesty’s Africa Program Deputy Director. “The wave of arrests and harassment against pro-democracy activists documented in the last week is casting a dark shadow.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.