Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
The Arab Spring began when Tunisian street vender Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. Symbolically, the uprising peaked in oil-rich Libya when Muammar Gaddafi's government was toppled. Since then, much has been made of the downfall of dictators and the emergence of free speech in parts of the Arab region. Now is the time for an African Spring, a potential next wave of democracy that is poised to spread across Africa.
If there is one thing preventing the African Spring, it is oil. More than any other natural resource, oil has kept oppressive African leaders in power. One of the greatest threats to that power is transparency over their oil dealings.
As in Libya, practically all of Equatorial Guinea's export earnings are from oil. On paper, both are wealthy countries, and yet most of their citizens are ravaged by poverty and disease. Even though Equatorial Guinea ranks near the top ten percent of all countries in GDP per capita, its child mortality rate is among the bottom ten percent. Equatorial Guinea's President Obiang is the world's longest-ruling head of state, holding power since 1979. In each presidential election, he has won more than 95 percent of the vote. Most Americans have never heard of Obiang or his outlandish tastes. But he and his family's opulent lifestyle make Gaddafi look like a responsible penny-pincher.
As in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya one year ago, most citizens in Equatorial Guinea have little say about how their government uses the country's natural resource wealth. Opposition members and civil society groups are regularly harassed. All television and radio stations are controlled by the state or by President Obiang's family. Indeed, in February 2011, the government issued a ban against reporting on the Arab Spring uprisings.
The United States can help encourage an African Spring. Currently, no one in Equatorial Guinea – outside of Obiang's family and associates – knows how much revenue the country is earning from its export of oil.
Many Africans are now online and communicating through social media. The US can help empower them with information they need to rally for positive change, holding their governments to account. Fortunately, one means to help accomplish this has already been passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama.
Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act requires that oil, gas and mining companies disclose what they pay to every foreign country to extract their natural resources as part of their annual filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission. This is significant, as the people of Equatorial Guinea want to know how much oil companies are paying their government, as those funds help Obiang maintain his iron grip on power. Citizens in countries such as Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Angola, Iran, Cambodia, and Myanmar would also benefit from this new transparency.
Yet the SEC, under pressure from big oil companies and the American Petroleum Institute, has delayed – for over nine months – issuing strong rules that meet the intent of the law. The companies are lobbying the SEC for exceptions and loopholes that would keep these payments secret if the foreign government in question refuses to allow the disclosure. Perversely, this exemption would give corrupt foreign governments a veto over US law. This "tyrant's veto" would not only undermine the Dodd-Frank Act, it would set a terrifying precedent for future US laws.
The SEC commissioners should resist this pressure and establish clear rules that enforce transparency, promote human rights, and combat corruption. The final rules should offer no exemptions of any kind.
The people of Equatorial Guinea want to know what oil companies are paying to help keep their corrupt government in power. Enforcing our laws and demanding transparency is an important stepping-stone towards fueling an African Spring, and moving closer to a freer, fairer Africa.
Tutu Alicante is Executive Director of EG Justice. Simon Taylor is a Founding Director of Global Witness.ShareThis