Petroleum to the People

Africa’s Coming Resource Curse—and How to Avoid It

A man walks away as crude oil spills from a pipeline in Dadabili, Niger state, April 2, 2011.
A man walks away as crude oil spills from a pipeline in Dadabili, Niger state, April 2, 2011. (Afolabi Sotunde / Courtesy Reuters)

In October 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion to seize a palatial cliff-top home in Malibu, California. The 16-acre property towers over its neighbors, with a palm-lined driveway leading to a plaster-and-tile mansion. Situated in the heart of one of the United States’ most expensive neighborhoods, the $30 million estate includes a swimming pool, a tennis court, and a four-hole golf course. In its complaint, the Justice Department also set its sights on high-performance speedboats worth $2 million, over two dozen cars (including a $2 million Maserati and eight Ferraris), and $3.2 million in Michael Jackson memorabilia -- in total, assets equaling approximately $71 million. What made these extravagant possessions all the more remarkable was that they belonged to a government worker from a small African country who was making an official salary of about $80,000 a year: Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the oldest son of and heir apparent to Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the longtime president of Equatorial Guinea.

Home to over one billion barrels of oil reserves, Equatorial Guinea has exported as many as 400,000 barrels of oil a day since 1995, a bonanza that has made the country wealthier, in terms of GDP per capita, than France, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Little of this wealth, however, has helped the vast majority of Equatorial Guinea’s 700,000 people: today, three out of every four Equatorial Guineans live on less than $2 a day, and infant mortality rates in the country have barely budged since oil was first discovered there. The president’s family members and other elites connected to the Obiang regime, meanwhile, have prospered.

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