Interview: Equatoguinean human rights activist Tutu Alicante speaks out against corruption

Over the past few months, ONE has become very interested in the government affairs of Equatorial Guinea, a tiny Spanish-speaking country off the Western coast of Africa. The country, home to sizeable petroleum reserves, is one of the richest on the continent — but also has the most uneven distribution of wealth. Approximately 70 percent of the country lives below the poverty line, while those in power are living a life of incredible opulence.

The cause for this disparity is unquestionably corruption, specifically in the extractives (oil, mining, gas, etc.) industry. To learn more about this issue in Equatorial Guinea and beyond, we spoke to Tutu Alicante, an Equatoguinean human rights lawyer and the executive director of EG Justice, an NGO devoted to fighting corruption in Equatorial Guinea. You might recognize his name from our email at the beginning of our extractives transparency campaign, where he expressed his outrage at companies denying millions the chance to escape extreme poverty.

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In our interview, he talks about how he got started in the anti-corruption business, EG President Obiang’s crazy antics, and how ONE members can get more involved in promoting transparency.

How did you get started?
I grew up in Equatorial Guinea and witnessed a lot of horrendous things. In 1993, there was an incident in Annobón, my hometown, where two young men were killed and several men were tortured severely. Many of the young men ran into the forest in fear, including my cousin. When the government couldn’t find him, they burned down our family’s house.

I had a conversation with my father when I asked him what we should do, and he said there is nothing we can do. As a young man, those were shocking words, that the government could just do whatever they want — with absolute impunity — and there’s nothing you can do. I came to the US a year after that, thinking I’d become a journalist. But during college, when oil was discovered in Equatorial Guinea, I realized that oil was going to be central to the future of my country. I wanted to know what would happen to the revenues of that natural resource, knowing it would create an economic, political and social fissure. So, I became a lawyer, thinking that the law would give me the tools to advocate for the rule of law, human rights and transparency.

Can you talk to us a little more about the idea of “secret deals” between oil companies and governments? I think for many Americans, this came a bit as a surprise.
When oil is found in a place like Equatorial Guinea, the government signs an agreement with multinational energy companies to explore, produce and distribute that oil. As part of the contract, the energy companies are obligated to make several payments to the government of the host country; including bonus payments, royalties, national income taxes and various other types of taxes.

In countries with an established tradition of rule of law, and checks and balances, these payments are accounted for and done in a transparent manner. In the case of Equatorial Guinea, however, where the president and his family are above the law and make no distinctions between the state and their personal accounts, information about payments is kept secret. So people — including parliamentarians — today don’t know how much oil is being produced, or how much is being collected in revenues.

ONE has been following the antics of President Obiang for some time now. Doesn’t he ever drive you absolutely crazy? Why don’t EG citizens do anything about it?
He doesn’t drive me crazy. I do not let things within my control drive me crazy. Obiang’s government has come to represent secrecy and human rights violations, but those are issues that we in Equatorial Guinea and the global community, know how to solve. EG, as bad as it is, is not the only case is systematic corruption and impunity. Similar regimes in Libya and Egypt have been toppled, and others, like in Burma, appear to be moving in the right direction, and that’s why he doesn’t drive me crazy.

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As far as corruption goes, have you seen EG change for the better or worse? Why?
So far, Equatorial Guinea has gotten worse. The reason being when you have a small country, with limited resources, in which most people are poor and corruption is systematic, the amount of damage of that corruption has is comparably small. But, when you have a country with a per capita GDP comparable to that of the UK or Germany, and yet one family mismanages all that wealth, the disparity or inequality soon becomes one of criminal proportion. Corruption in this later context has a cumulative that cannot and should not be ignored.

We’re talking about government officials who are taking millions of dollars through extortion and bribes and assert that the law authorizes it. We are also talking about government officials whose position depends on their unquestionable loyalty to the presidential family. Until we, the people of Equatorial Guinea realize that corruption is hurting us all, the presidential family and their cronies will continue to engage in it.

How can international activists like our ONE members help improve transparency in EG and beyond aside from signing our petition?
We need the global community to pitch in. We can’t solve this problem alone. By far the most important thing you can do is to be vocal in your communities. Government authorities in the US are responsive to you as their constituents and if you make global transparency in the extractive industry a priority agenda for them, then you will be helping to address issues of poverty and inequality in faraway places like Equatorial Guinea.

So, we have more than 130,000 signatures on our extractives transparency petition. How does that make you feel?
Elated, extremely happy. We need all the support we can get to make extractive transparency a cornerstone of international relations, foreign policy and trade globally. I really thank the ONE for picking this issue up, and bringing it to the attention of your supporters around the world.

What is the most interesting thing that people need to know about corruption as a phenomenon?
Corruption is more than about money and lavish lifestyles. It is about human beings. I often tell the story of an sister who died when she was 21, in the central hospital of Malabo—the capital of Equatorial Guinea—without a doctor present, the needed medicine that could have saved her, or electricity. Similarly, a cousin, three years younger than me, died in the same way. Almost every family in my country can tell that story about a relative. And for me, that is a problem with corruption. When money that is supposed to be used to guarantee peoples basic dignity and life is diverted to purchase mansions, private jets and luxury cars, human beings die. Corruption has a tremendous price.

Stay in touch with Tutu Alicante on Twitter at @EGJustice. And take action by asking european leaders to stand up to corporate lobbying against proposed EU laws requiring oil, gas and mining companies to publish payments to foreign governments.