Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mark Thatcher & Simon Mann's African Coup

Gulf of Guinea Tea

Equatorial Guinea, squeezed between Cameroon and Gabon at Africa's west coast crook, has just 525,000 citizens in a nation about the size of Massachusetts.

Perpetually hot and humid, the country is composed of a small chunk of the African mainland and a collection of five islands. The capital, Malabo, is located on the island of Bioko.

The nation gained independence in 1968 after 200 years of Spanish rule. A democracy in theory but a corrupt dictatorship in practice, it has had just two presidents in its 37-year history.

Despite brutal regimes, Equatorial Guinea drew scant international attention through the early 1990s beyond the occasional finger-waggling human rights report.

That changed when a modest oil field was discovered in the nation's territorial waters in the Gulf of Guinea. The field began producing 17,000 barrels of crude oil a day — not much compared to other countries, but enough to prompt further exploratory drilling.

In 1995, ExxonMobil hit the petroleum jackpot when it discovered a huge new field off Bioko Island. Today, the Gulf of Guinea's oil reserves — owned by several countries — are estimated at more than one billion barrels, perhaps ten percent of the world's total.

Equatorial Guinea on Africa map
Equatorial Guinea on Africa map

Equatorial Guinea's oil fields produced 360,000 barrels a day in 2004, and oil accounted for 90 percent of the country's exports.

Most of the world's largest oil companies now trade with Equatorial Guinea, including Amerada Hess, ChevronTexaco, Devon Energy, Energy Africa, Marathon, Noble Affiliates and Petronas. Firms involved in oil exploration there include Chevron, ExxonMobil, Vanco, Atlas and Devon, all based in the United States; Roc, based in Australia; Petronas, based in Malaysia; South Africa's Sasol; Britain's Noble, and Glencore, based in Switzerland.

A vast natural gas field also was discovered. Equatorial Guinea signed a $1.4 billion deal with Houston-based Marathon Oil to construct a liquefied natural gas facility on Bioko. British Gas signed a 17-year agreement to buy product from the facility.

As a result of the energy finds, the nation has become the third largest recipient of direct investment from U.S. firms in sub-Saharan Africa. (The top two, South Africa and Nigeria, have exponentially greater populations — 43 million and 130 million, respectively — and land masses.)

The international investment has raised Equatorial Guinea's per capita annual income from $370 in 1995 to nearly $10,000 today. Yet 70 percent of the population is malnourished, and eight in ten citizens have a subsistence lifestyle.

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