Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang
Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Reuters

Most of the people in the tiny African state of Equatorial Guinea live in the western reaches of the country, away from the dense jungle areas and closer to a string of port towns on the Atlantic Ocean. So it may come as some surprise that the new capital city of Oyala, currently under construction, sits about a hundred miles inland, in the middle of a verdant expanse bordered by national parks.

But President Teodoro Obiang wouldn’t have it any other way. And in this poverty-stricken country of just 700,000 people, the president’s word is the law of the land.

Obiang is Africa’s longest-serving dictator; he has been in power since ousting his own uncle in a 1979 coup. All elections since then have lacked serious contenders. The president is an old pro at quashing dissent; he has been criticized for repeated human rights violations and condemned for failing to bring prosperity to the long-suffering population of Equatorial Guinea.

For him, the location of the new capital city – where he plans to reside – is a question of security rather than convenience. The current seat of government in the coastal capital city of Malabo has been attacked by seafaring gunmen in years past, and Obiang has reasons to be wary of potential ousters.

“We need a secure place for my government and for future governments. That's why we have created Oyala, to guarantee the government of Equatorial Guinea,” said Obiang, according to the BBC.

Construction of the new capital is expected to cost billions of dollars, and Obiang has already contracted foreign firms from countries all over the world to set the project in motion. A sprawling university library, a paved highway, and the beginnings of a luxury hotel are early manifestations of the president’s monumental plan.

It’s no secret where the money is coming from. Equatorial Guinea is the third-largest producer of oil in sub-Saharan Africa despite its minuscule size, and its economy has grown rapidly over the past two decades. Obiang has plenty to show for it; he has splurged on Parisian real estate, fancy cars, massive jets and lavish entertainment for himself and his son Teodorin Obiang, the country’s nominal agricultural minister.

Meanwhile, the people are starving. Given a dire lack of development and organization, hard statistics are hard to come by. But it is clear that poverty is rampant, child mortality is high and literacy rates are low. Only about half the population has access to clean drinking water. Infrastructural basics like roads, schools and medical facilities are scant, and sustenance farming is how the vast majority of the population makes its living.

Equatorial Guinea is one of Africa’s most poignant illustrations of the “resource curse” – a situation wherein opportunists seize natural resources for personal gain at the expense of development. It has happened in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where mineral wealth spurs ongoing conflicts; in Nigeria, where oil riches have only worsened the income gap; and in Zimbabwe, where diamonds finance a corrupt regime.

As Obiang readies his gilded fortress in the jungle, it is clear he has no plans to start addressing his own country’s very serious problems. He has said that he envisions a population of 200,000 for Oyala, which would be more than a quarter of the country’s entire population – he may be angling to make the new capital a hub for businessmen and students from all across the African continent. But if the past 33 years are any indication, it seems clear that Equatorial Guinea’s population will see little or no benefits from the president’s latest grand scheme.