News Analysis

Imperialist conspiracies to seize control of natural resources and to dominate peoples of distant lands are in full swing. Apart from the Iraqi debacle, the events unfolding in the former Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea, on the West African coast, are particularly instructive.

The discovery of huge oil deposits there in recent years, on the mainland and offshore, has been a catalyst for profit-driven proponents of imperial conquest. Some of their agents were caught red-handed last spring.

Government investigators have established that dozens of mercenaries and co-conspirators planned to oust President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo through the use of assassination and brute force. The coup plot unraveled when a planeload of 60 South African mercenaries and weapons were discovered by airport security on the tarmac of Zimbabwe’s Harare International Airport on March 7, en route to Equatorial Guinea.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Evidence is mounting that British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were both aware of the plot’s outlines months before it began to unfold.

In a statement given to lawyers in Equatorial Guinea, and reported by the British newspaper The Observer, Johann Smith, a former commanding officer in the South African Special Forces, said that he “submitted a report in December 2003 of what I discovered [about the plot] to Michael Westphal of the Pentagon. … I expected the U.S. government to take steps to warn Equatorial Guinea or to stop the coup. This was also my expectation as regards the British government, which I warned through two Secret Intelligence Service (M16) people I knew.”

Michael Westphal is U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense in charge of special operations and combating terrorism.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw denied prior knowledge of the coup conspiracy as recently as last August. In November, however, he conceded he knew quite a bit more. The British Parliament has called for an investigation.

The trial proceedings against the coup plotters have taken place in Malabo, the nation’s capital, and in Zimbabwe and South Africa, as well. The sentences handed out range from one year to 64 years. A political opponent to President Obiang, Severo Moto, who maintains a government-in-exile with his own appointed cabinet in Spain, received a 64-year sentence in absentia.

Mark Thatcher, an alleged financier of the coup plan, faces trial in South Africa. He was detained as he was about to flee his home in Capetown, and is presently under house arrest. A very wealthy man, Thatcher is the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Equatorial Guinea gained political independence in 1968, under the presidency of Francisco Nguema. Opposition parties were banned in 1970, and Nguema declared himself president for life in 1972. In 1979, Lt. Col. Teodoro Obaing, his nephew, initiated a coup d’etat, and has been in power ever since.

The country’s leadership is notorious for its corruption and for committing human rights abuses and torture. The recent trials in Malabo were criticized by Amnesty International as unfair “in view of serious procedural flaws and the admission of confessions allegedly extracted under torture.” An alleged co-conspirator of the coup attempt died in custody under questionable circumstances.

Before the discovery and extraction of its oil, the country’s economy was primarily based on agricultural exports, namely cocoa, coffee, and timber. Today, about 90 percent of Equatorial Guinea’s export revenue comes from oil, with output at about 360,000 barrels a day.

Whether its oil revenue has benefited the indigenous population is highly questionable. The government’s finances are anything but transparent, and its share of oil revenues (most of which is kept by the oil monopolies) has been estimated to be as low as 15 percent. Most of the population lives in extreme poverty and lacks electricity, running water or adequate nutrition.

From the vantage point of the imperialist West, however, the flow of oil remains paramount. An estimated 15 percent of U.S. oil imports come from Africa, with Nigeria, Angola, and Equatorial Guinea at the top of the list.

Ron Bunyon is a reader in Philadelphia. He can be reached at