Equatorial Guinea’s Humanitarian Disaster Can Trigger A New Social Contract

PUBLISHED: Tue, 23 Mar 2021 16:52:23 GMT
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Fifteen years later, I am reading Derek Walcot’s poem A far cry from Africa again, not for the whole continent as I used to do in those days but for Equatorial Guinea, and not from Barcelona where I was then living but from Madrid, where I arrived about two months ago to take a break after a period of overloaded work. In the last seven years, I have been Secretary of State in charge of monitoring Equatorial Guinea’s Development Plan (almost five years) and Minister of Finance, Economy and Planning (a year and a half). In October 2020, I was removed from the functions of Minister and two months later, in December, I decided to give myself what I had lacked for years: me-time.

Equatorial Guinea, my country, is currently sinking into an unprecedented collective sadness. On Sunday March 7, there was a massive explosion in an arsenal at a military base in Bata, the mainland region of the country. Official sources say that so far around a hundred people have died and more than 500      have been injured. These are provisional figures but the population is already assuming that the blow will be greater.

My crying is deprived of the resource of remoteness because social networks, which inform as well as misinform, keep me plugged into the magnified horror of family and friends and also into their indignation and frustration at this disaster caused by “human negligence”. Images of the horror have been flashed in the global media. But those images do not capture the full horror of the drama or the complexity of the moment for a country like Equatorial Guinea.

For those following the news from the country, Guineans and non-Guineans, whether living in Equatorial Guinea or abroad, it is easy to fall prey to frustration, pessimism and negativism. Equatorial Guinea is not often the subject of global media coverage. When it does appear, the headlines are forceful and it is undeniable that there is an entrenched narrative that biases the international reader against Equatorial Guinea, or more specifically against its government, of which I have been a part. This narrative, as rooted as it is in data and statistics, does not help Equatorial Guinea, it minimises (if not hides) important achievements of the Government, while at the same time it obscures the country’s potential and distorts its future.

This humanitarian disaster is unleashing waves of solidarity with Equatorial Guinea, but also winds of indignation and anger. Giving in to negativism would therefore be a clearly justifiable reaction, but at the same time it carries a risk that Equatorial Guinea must avoid at this juncture. The futility of understanding possible future options misses the opportunity to honour the victims of this humanitarian disaster with a sincere and constructive national reconciliation capable of forging a new social contract. Common sense – the least common of senses – says that this is no time for finger pointing, we need to keep the eye on the ball. 

Equatorial Guinea gained independence from Spain in 1968. The first decade saw the destruction of almost all the economic and institutional infrastructure inherited from the colonial period, leading to a decline in the economy’s productivity. During the 1980s and 1990s, the country witnessed  alarming rates of poverty, but in the early 2000s, Equatorial Guinea experienced significant economic growth driven by oil production which was brought to a screeching halt by the oil shock in mid-2014. The sharp fall in oil prices and the decline in hydrocarbon production consequently led to significant macroeconomic imbalances, particularly in terms of the budget, and negative economic growth in the period 2013-2019, peaking at around -9% in 2015-2016. Real GDP declined by 71% between 2014 and 2019.

A country like Equatorial Guinea which is currently facing an economic recession caused by a double shock – the oil shock from the second half of 2014 and the COVID-19 shock — hardly has the fiscal space or economic or social resilience to cope with the pandemic. This current humanitarian disaster of unfathomable dimensions may have unpredictable consequences. Economic recovery is slow and arduous, and the economic and social scars of the arsenal explosion will further exacerbate an already uncertain and complex situation.

In recent years, ordinary citizens, civil society groups and private businesses have  demonstrated an unprecedented capacity  to respond to social challenges. Their readiness to subsidize national crisis was seen during the horrific fires in overcrowded areas of Malabo and Bata. These groups, together with the improvised but effective social safety net that NGOs put in place to protect the most vulnerable Guineans during the corona virus pandemic are a key factor in providing relief to the victims of the blast.

Strategic politicisation and a compassionate top-down leadership will be necessary to overcome the current crisis, but they alone will not be enough. Given the existential challenge that Equatorial Guinea faces today, it will be necessary to progressively depoliticise some spheres, to devise an architecture of consensus that will make it possible to harness the energy and knowledge of all (government, business, civil society, citizens). More spaces for reflection, participation and action must be opened up.

The future of Guineans is uncertain and complex.  The combination of economic policies and institutional provisions that will emerge from this severe recession are numerous and no one can predict their success. It is an uncertain and not risk-free journey. It is a learning process. Humility is required on the part of all actors. Sanctimoniously reproaching historical mistakes and subsequent cover-ups ad nauseam are attitudes that may appear appealing reactions to the current situation. However, that attitude is not only negligent, but could also be the downfall of Equatorial Guinea.

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The international community should support and accompany Equatorial Guinea on a path to recovery and not distance itself from it.  Equatorial Guinea,  in turn, should accept helping hand. And here are some of the ways in which the international community could assist:

  • Sending humanitarian aid and immediate assistance so that Equatorial Guinea can cope with this humanitarian disaster. That, fortunately, is already being done. African solidarity has already been activated. Spain, France and Israel have sent humanitarian aid and personnel to support. China has sent aid and personnel. The United States has sent in equipment and personnel. The expressions of international solidarity and support will grow and will be added to those of companies (American, French, Chinese, etc.) and Guinean civil society, which has generated an impressive network of front-line workers for this emergency. These multi-stakeholder efforts will need to be coordinated to avoid duplication of efforts and inefficient use of resources. UNDP is well placed to support the government in coordinating international solidarity.
  • In February 2021, China donated 100,000 doses of shinopharm vaccine to Equatorial Guinea. This campaign will immunize around 4% of the population. Unfortunately, it is not enough, for example, to safely reopen the schools that remain closed. China can do more; it can also, as the country’s largest bilateral creditor, renegotiate the terms of economic and financial cooperation between the two countries, thus providing a breath of fresh air for Equatorial Guinea’s economic recovery.  
  • Equatorial Guinea is part of the Central African Monetary Union (CEMAC) which uses a common currency, the XAF franc. In December 2016, the leaders of the sub-region agreed with the IMF on a programme to strengthen macroeconomic and financial stability, promote economic diversification, foster good governance practices and transparency, and support the fight against corruption.  Equatorial Guinea’s programme was significantly delayed and its implementation has been severely disrupted by the outbreak of the pandemic. In its communiqué of solidarity with Equatorial Guinea, the IMF, through its Managing Director, Kristalina Georgieva, has expressed the institution’s willingness, in consultation with various partners, to continue the constructive dialogue within the framework of this programme.
  • Before the outbreak of COVID19 , Equatorial Guinea organised a national economic conference to adopt a  Development Plan aligned with the Africa Agenda 2063 and the Sustainable Development Goals. The United Nations Development System, the IMF, MDBs (AfDB, WBG, BADEA, BDEAC, etc.) and governments such as France and the United States made significant contributions to the final documents. The knowledge partner for this development strategy was KDI (the South Korean Development Institute).  The outcome of this conference, in which more than 1,500 delegates (government, business and civil society) participated, contains the fundamentals of a social contract that multilateral and bilateral partners can help Equatorial Guinea to put into practice.  

And these are my two cents that, as former Minister of Finance, Economy and Planning, I wanted to contribute to the effort to rethink Equatorial Guinea in order to face the challenges ahead. International solidarity is critical, but above all, we Guineans must understand and assume that  at the end it is up to ALL of us, to find a way out of the current crisis that the explosion of the arsenal has only exacerbated