Democracy Vs Dictatorship: A Catholic Decision in Equatorial Guinea

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Equatorial Guinea is a small African state located on the central west coast of the continent where democracy has yet to arrive. After years of colonial rule under Spanish dictator Franco, and following a conflictual independence process that culminated in 1968 – Francisco Macías Nguema’s dictatorship began in 1969. Macías was overthrown in 1979 in a coup d’ état led by his nephew, Teodoro Obiang, who established his own dictatorship and remains president today. 

A century of dictatorships in Equatorial Guinea has led to the absence of an organised civil society and the lack of structured political opposition. Few options therefore exist for democratic mobilisation and campaigning for human rights. I argue that the Catholic Church has the potential to assist in creating pathways for democratic mobilisation and reducing human rights abuses. But this begs the question: how has the Catholic Church behaved in relation to the current dictatorship? And what is currently constraining the Church from promoting democratic change?

The Catholic Church in Equatorial Guinea

According to the 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom developed by the United States government, 88% of Equatorial Guinea’s population are Catholic, 5% Protestant, 2% Muslim – mainly Sunni, while the remaining 5% adhere to animism, the Baha’i Faith, Judaism, and other beliefs.

The Catholic Church in Equatorial Guinea is organised into one archdiocese (Malabo) and four dioceses (Bata, Ebeyín, Mongomo and Evinayong). There are approximately 238 priests and 96 parishes. In addition, there are 7 male Catholic missionary organisations and 18 female ones. Catholic masses are part of all major ceremonial functions, including State ones, like Independence Day (October 12) and the President’s Birthday holiday (June 5). Notably, Catholic leaders are the only religious leaders to regularly meet publicly with high-level government officials.

The Association of Catholic Teaching Centers of Equatorial Guinea rules 85 Catholic schools where 1,200 teachers educate 40,000 students. Catholic private schools receive public support, including the funding of most teachers’ salaries. In addition, Catholicism is taught and encouraged in public schools. Several minor seminars, one major inter diocesan seminar for Catholic education of future priests, and two Spanish private Catholic schools can be added to the Catholic educational equation.

In addition, the Catholic Church also rules a vital part of the health sector in the country. Catholic missionary organisations, run by nuns, manage 6 of the country’s 44 health centres, which provide more consultations than the other 38 centres. These health centres also receive the support of the Guinean state, which pays the salaries of several health staff.

Churches, secular buildings (offices, houses, storages, etc.), material resources (vehicles, food, funds, etc), several NGO’s such as Caritas or PROYSO, a radio station, and all types of socio-religious activities and relations (weddings, baptisms, popular celebrations, national, regional and local festivals…) co-structure the wide Catholic sociocultural net in Equatorial Guinea.

Democracy in Equatorial Guinea

Equatorial Guinea has one of the longest-serving heads of state globally (more than forty years). Although it holds regular elections, the United Nations, and bodies such as Freedom House, Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International often report a lack of freedom in elections, corruption, and constant repression of civil and political rights.

In fact, the government is considered one of the most corrupt and repressive in the world. Power is concentrated in the hands of Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasago and his family members, who all belong to the majority ethnic group, the Fang. They have developed a patrimonial state within a system of clientelist relations in a sort of dynastic republican model. Under this system, different family members are integrated into the government and are the main political actors in the country. Here, corruption is the rule rather than the exception. The power to conduct business and government affairs seems to be hereditary, and “Violence, repression, intimidation and harassment [have been used] to maintain control of all state institutions and military forces”.

The US Department of State published a report on March 30 2021, outlining widespread anti-democratic abuses carried out by the government. These abuses include, but were not limited to, arbitrary killings and detentions, forced disappearances and torture, life-threatening prison conditions, severe restrictions on freedoms of expression and the press, and the inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections – including restrictions on political participation and serious acts of corruption.

In February 2020, for example, Vice-President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mangue, the President’s son, was condemned for embezzlement and money laundering by the Paris Court of Appeal. In Equatorial Guinea, however, the President controls the courts, police, army and all state institutions in the interest of his family clan. This meant that other than having to pay a fine as a result of the Paris Court of Appeal ruling, the vice-president could continue his luxurious lifestyle without any political or legal consequences.

Can the Catholic Church be a democratic force in Equatorial Guinea under these circumstances?

In general, the capacity and willingness of the Catholic Church to enable democratic political transformation in repressive dictatorships remains unclear. Despite the fact that the organisational structure and doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church remains as one entity, different approaches towards dictatorships are taken by different “national” Catholic churches.

On the one hand, we can find national Catholic churches that have acted as mediators and mobilisers for democracy. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, local parishes and bishops have engaged in a hybrid form of religio-political organisation, which does not engage in partisan politics but often encourages believers to stand up for democratic rights occurs.

On the other hand, some national church systems have operated as guarantors, legitimisers and beneficiaries of authoritarian regimes – as has been the case in Argentina, Uruguay, Honduras, and Bolivia. Here, the Church was primarily silent during military rule and offered limited and ineffective opposition. In some cases this was due to a lack of institutional resources and capabilities, in others the fact that the Church benefitted from authoritarian rule financially and through high level support for its spiritual ambitions.

In line with this summary, comparative research shows that while “we cannot understand the Church’s role in opposition movements with reference to resources alone”, “in none of the cases we have reviewed has the Catholic Church fully committed its resources to topple a regime”.

In the case of Equatorial Guinea, in 2012 the Catholic magazine Vida Nueva reported on how the Bishops’ Conference keeps silent and “does not do anything meaningful” concerning human rights abuses in the country. Eduardo Losaha, an exiled Equatoguinean priest who was imprisoned in Black Beach prison for two years, claimed in 2018 that “the top ecclesiastical officials of the Catholic Church in Equatorial Guinea are also of Fang ethnic group and this has led to the Church’s failure to denounce and confront the abuses of the dictatorship”.

My own interviews with Equatorial Guinean Catholic priests confirm this situation: ethnic nepotism, corruption, and state control are all rife. Indeed, instances of government-church collaboration include the recording of masses to uncover possible dissidents.

The Church or bust

Despite all of the serious concerns and limitations noted above, no other civil society organisation in Equatorial Guinea possesses the organisational structures and influence required for mobilisation towards equal human rights and democracy than the Church.

The majority of the high-profile activists for democracy and human rights in Equatorial Guinea are in exile, including most political opposition party leaders. Digital media platforms, such as Diario Rombe  or Radio Macuto, and NGOs such as EG Justice, which hold the capacity to inform people about the abuses and corruption committed by the regime, are banned.

In contexts of high-risk collective action, as in Equatorial Guinea, ‘social movements are more likely to emerge when institutional networks facilitate access to critical resources, and linkages to religious institutions in these kinds of contexts may facilitate involvement’. Thus, while the Church has disappointed so far, it may yet come to play an important role.

President Obiang is 79 years old in a country where life expectancy is around 59. The succession serial to replace him has already started.  On one side, there is the first lady and her devotees who support her son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang. On the other side is Armengol Ondo Nguema, the President’s younger brother, who is supported by different factions of the family.

Democracy may have an opportunity to flourish in Equatorial Guinea if the resources of the Catholic Church are mobilized towards demanding democratic reforms amidst the uncertainty that is likely to emerge around the succession – and before the new regime is fully established and the opportunity to imagine new political futures is closed. If not, history will repeat itself.

Whether the Church seeks to play this progressive role or not will remain, however, a Catholic decision.

Nicolás Paz is a Mediator, and an Associate Lecturer at Pontifical University of Salamanca, Spain.

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