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Equatorial Guinea - History

Equatorial Guinea History

It's pretty rare to open up the newspaper and find a story about Equatorial Guinea, but that's not to say that the West African nation has been an uneventful paradise. From the time the Bantu moved into the area that is now mainland Equatorial Guinea in the 12th and 13th centuries, there were tribal wars in the area. Having previously been inhabited by Pygmies and the Ndowe people, the area was quickly dominated by the warlike Fang. Their hostility kept European colonials on their toes, preventing a wholesale occupation of the area. Nevertheless, the Fang were forced from the coast during the centuries of slave trading by the British, Dutch and French, reoccupying after the abolition of slavery.

The island of Bioko was settled by the Bubi people about the 13th century and they were joined by the Portugese in the late 1500s. Portugal held many of the islands in the Gulf of Guinea including São Tomé and Príncipe. Portugal traded away Bioko to the Spanish in 1778 and, by the early 19th century, the island had become an important centre for the European slave trade. Profitable cocoa plantations made Bioko Spain's most important possession in equatorial Africa.

Throughout the period of Spanish rule, most of the mainland region remaimed unexplored, with the Spanish venturing into the interior in the 1920s. Only after the Spanish civil war ended in 1939 did the colonial power begin developing the region in earnest. Partial autonomy was granted in 1963 - the same year the island and mainland colonies were joined under the name Equatorial Guinea.

Independence came in 1968. With self-determination came the realisation that Spain had left the country virtually bankrupt. A state of emergency was declared. Francisco Macias Nguema was elected president and in 1970, followed most central and west African leaders by declaring opposition groups illegal. By 1972 he had declared himself leader for life, and was well underway on a campaign of terror and arbitrary brutality on a par with Bokassa in the Central African Republic and Idi Amin in Uganda. Many thousands of people were tortured and executed in jails or beaten to death in labour camps. Priests were arrested and schools and churches were closed. Being a journalist became a capital offense. The leader even made fishing illegal and destroyed every boat he could find. For several years, Equatorial Guinea was effectively closed off from the world. By the time Macias' 'rule for life' ended with a coup and his execution in 1979, two-thirds of the population had either fled Equatorial Guinea or been killed.

Equatorial Guinea's road back to multiparty democracy has been a torturous one. Old habits die hard, and although elections have been held, it is widely believed that vote-rigging has been rampant. The US State Department declared that the first presidential election in 1993 was a 'parody of democracy'. The arrest and imprisonment of an opposition leader sent a clear message to all about the country's democratisation, although he was released following pressure from Western governments.

Although it's unknown whether the effects will be positive or negative, the discovery of oil in Equatorial Guinean waters is sure to change the political and social landscape of the country. Mobil has two oil rigs operating, although several neighbouring countries claim territorial rights to the area. If the government spends oil revenue wisely, Equatorial Guinea has a chance of peacefully shifting to full democracy. If international or internal disputes increase, however, oil could prove to be just another curse.

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