Oyala isn’t a name that means much to many. It is a Bantu word chosen to represent President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasago’s latest vision. A place rising from the continental mists of inland Equatorial Guinea, far removed from threats the president fears will emerge from the Gulf of Guinea, or from the depths of his memories.
Memories, maybe of his own actions, against his predecessor and uncle, Francisco Macaís. Perceived as a puppet by Spanish colonial powers hoping to retain influence over the cocoa plantations on the island, Fernando Po, and to the timber and possible mineral riches on the mainland and to who knew what lay beneath the oceans. All things are relative and in defence of the country’s present leader, Macaís was a blood-thirsty bastard.
Discovered in 1692 by a Portuguese seaman, Fernao de Po, who promptly laid claim to the pearl-shaped volcanic island naming it Formosa. The tiny country in West Africa, found in the fold of most maps and atlases, was ruled variously by Portugal, Spain, Great Britain and Spain again until independence in 1968.
Why does this little known country fascinate me? Because of family history. My father would travel there firstly in the name of general trade and later at the behest of his Italian masters for the sake of gas. He would return home to Kano, Lagos, Port Harcourt or wherever we happened to be living at the time within the confines of Nigeria, with stories of ebony-haired beauties chastely lining the walls of the club each evening. Hoping to snare a monied Spanish worthy, they were of course chaperoned by their black-clad, teeth-sucking duenas. Tales too of evenings, and sometimes mornings, spent sipping whisky with an amiable priest happy to discuss the woes of the world with an Englishman, whose Spanish improved with the quantity imbibed.
Fast forward forty years when for two and half years the island, by then named Bioko, became home for me. Living in the run down capital, no longer Santa Isabel although airline designation letters still showed SSG, Malabo, and its people became part of my own history. Like most expatriates, a place once lived in always will always hold a piece of one’s heart. Like most countries lived in, and Equatorial Guinea was no exception, the people are what make the place. The people on the street though, and not those connected to government or the ruling family, though like most sweeping statements there are always exceptions.
Obiang’s Shangrila, Oyala, is a master plan formed by the master of smoke and mirrors in a testament to himself: a city to house 200,000 people taken from a population just over half a million. People transplanted from the more populated coastal regions to the continental centre. A place that will on completion be home to the International University of Central Africa. An otherworldly edifice located in the midst of what was once a verdant jungle and home to apes, but now denuded by Chinese companies hungry for the valuable lumber, and granted permits by Obiang’s son and heir, Teodorin, when he was Minister for Forests.
Corruption grows like a canker and no matter the promises of those hoping for power, once reached the thirst is unquenchable for all connected to the man, or woman, at the top. One family and its entourage are just replaced by another. Except in Obiang’s case the family remained the same, just an offshoot whose branches crisscross the breadth of the continental region, and across the gulf to the island.
Fact is rarely stranger than fiction, and subterfuge and outside intervention are easily concocted. Perhaps Obiang was influenced by Frederick Forsyth’s imagination when the writer used Fernando Po as a geographical base for The Dogs of War. The president is not alone in wanting to secure a citadel far away from the threat, real or imagined, of seaborne strikes. Islamabad became the centre of government for Pakistan, far removed from coastal Karachi. Abuja replacd Lagos in Nigeria. And like Canberra, the inland Australian capital, Oyala is designed in concentric circles, designed to confuse.
So Obiang’s Oyala, a short distance from his Fang base of Mongomo, will become the epicentre of all that is wrong with a despotic country, the volcano from which all corruption will spew. Oyala will become the symbol of his power: the lasting legacy, at least in his eyes, of his omnipotence. He does after all have a direct line to God and is the Guarantor of Peace and Propeller of Development. At 71 he is old now, at least in African years. Having survived the very real threat of malaria as a child, and then cancer as an adult, which he beat with the assistance of European medicine, something many of his people have no access too; although Israel has in the last few years funded a hospital.
If Equatorial Guinea were a country of health and healthy prosperity for all, the engineering of a Utopia in the jungle would be remarkable. But for a country rich with oil, remarkably few riches reach the general populous. Many of those men survive on $1 day. Fromer has nothing on them. The man on the street celebrates his child’s fifth birthday as particularly auspicious because he has survived the malodorous confines of his water and electricity-free environment, not to mention the vicious bites of the falciparum-carrying mosquito that induces body-shaking fevers, and often death. The same man will again celebrate when he himself reaches the grand old age of 55: a landmark indeed, and for all the same reasons.
But Obiang is a canny man, quick to sign treaties, and a master of smoke and mirrors, able to turn an accusation into a counter accusation. He helped bring down Riggs Bank in Washington DC, which folded after transactions involving suitcases full of cash carried by presidential cronies arrived through its doors. Simon Mann, late of the notorious Black Beach jail on Bioko, one of the protagonists of the failed 2004 coup known in some circles as the Wonga Coup, has since written a security paper for the president. More smoke?
Will, I wonder, the mirrors sure to be installed in the grand buildings of Oyala, reflect a new and just Equatorial Guinea, or will they merely reflect evermore smoke curdling the landscape?