Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, left, shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping before their bilateral meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Sunday, Sept.r 2, 2018. (Nicolas Asfouri/Pool Photo via AP)

The U.S. intelligence community is suddenly worried that China might establish a military base on Africa’s Atlantic Coast, in the tropical nation of Equatorial Guinea. The Wall Street Journal reported that “a senior Biden administration official” recently warned the Equatorial Guinean government that a Chinese base “would raise national security concerns.”

But nowhere did the Journal articlealso explain that two U.S. oil giants, Chevron and Exxon, have been economic mainstays of the mega-corrupt Obiang family dictatorship for more than two decades. Chevron, in fact, boasted recently that its subsidiary, Noble Energy, accounts “for more than 60 percent of the country’s hydrocarbon production.” What’s more, Chevron just signed a new agreement with the regime—even after the reports about the possible Chinese military expansion became public.

The news about the potential Chinese base also raises uncomfortable suspicions that the Biden administration is soft-peddling its (already modest) concerns about human rights in Equatorial Guinea to avoid alienating the regime’s corrupt heir apparent, Teodorín Obiang, who could almost certainly block construction of the Chinese naval installation. 

The prospective Chinese military base also puts Chevron and Exxon in an awkward position. The brave Equatorial Guinean opposition and its allies in the global human rights movement have long called on the two oil corporations to stop funding one of the most corrupt regimes on Earth. The ruling Obiang family, headed by the patriarch, Teodoro, has allegedly taken at least hundreds of millions in oil revenues, but the nation’s 1.4 million people continue to live in desperate poverty. Now, though, the U.S. government should also have pointed questions—especially about why the oil giants are subsidizing a regime that might let China set up a base in the port of Bata, which an American general told the Journal “would give them a naval presence on the Atlantic.”

I visited Equatorial Guinea a decade ago. Several foreign journalists had already been arrested and expelled, so I slipped in as a “tourist,” and I didn’t approach the opposition until the end of my stay. President Obiang, who has ruled since 1979, had just won another “election.” A major hangout in the center of Malabo, the capital, was a restaurant called Pizza Place, and its clientele provided some valuable insights into the nation’s reality. On hot, muggy afternoons, groups of white oil workers from Europe and America, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, watched European soccer on big-screen televisions. Other tables were filled with dark-suited, senior Equatorial Guinean government officials, wearing lapel pins with President Obiang’s likeness, drinking Moët champagne over very long lunches.

At the time, Marcial Abaga was a young leader of the opposition who had already been arrested several times. After I appeared unannounced in the movement’s premises—a simple white-frame building in the mostly ramshackle low-rise capital—we spoke in Spanish. (Equatorial Guinea was once a colony of Spain, and Abaga, along with many Equatoguineans, was fluent—in addition to his knowledge of one or more African languages.) He told me, “I live in the Fiston neighborhood, near here. We have no electricity. We have no piped water; we have to get it from the river nearby. Our schools have 40 to 50 students in each class, with no desks, not enough teachers, not enough teaching materials.”

Recent Human Rights Watch reports show that the Obiang regime has not changed since my visit:

Vast oil revenues fund lavish lifestyles for the small elite surrounding the president, while a large proportion of the population continues to live in poverty. Mismanagement of public funds and credible allegations of high-level corruption persist, as do other serious abuses, including torture, arbitrary detention, and unfair trials.

Tutu Alicante is an exiled Equatoguinean who is the executive director of the human rights group EG Justice, which is based in Washington, D.C. Earlier this year, he wrote,

Despite the immense resource-wealth of the country, three-fourths of my people subsist on less than $2 a day. They struggle to access water, medical care and education. Over the past year, COVID-19 has deepened the inequality divide and exacerbated corruption, while lockdown enforcement has been used as an excuse to arrest and beat the poor struggling to subsist.

Chevron and Exxon have shrugged off the criticism and continued exporting oil and natural gas for more than two decades. But the possible Chinese military base is a big headache for them. Chevron’s publicity department acknowledged receiving—but did not further respond to a request for—comment. I was therefore unable to ask whether Chevron will end its operations in Equatorial Guinea if the country allows China to establish a military base.

Further complicating the picture is 79-year-old President Obiang’s heir apparent, his flamboyant international-playboy son Teodorín. In May, France upheld the younger Obiang’s conviction for embezzling, and confirmed the French seizure of more than $177 million in stolen assets. Teodorín had already forfeited $70 million of corrupt holdings (in the U.S.), and lost his $100 million super-yacht and 25 cars (in Switzerland).

Human Rights Watch and anti-corruption groups fully expected that Teodorín’s name would be added to the U.S. Treasury Department’s latest list of prominent individuals sanctioned for corruption. The Treasury blacklist already includes the Israeli businessman Dan Gertler, who has helped to loot the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other global mega-thieves. Sarah Saadoun, a senior researcher at HRW, told me, “Equatorial Guinea is one of the clearest and most well-documented cases of kleptocracy anywhere. The kleptocrats there are robbing people blind. The Biden administration has made a huge deal about getting serious about corruption. So we were sure that this time Teodorín would be included in that list.”

He wasn’t. “Who can say for sure why he was missing?” Saadoun said. “But it did coincide with the published reports that the U.S. is concerned about the possible Chinese military base.”

President Obiang is rumored to be in bad health, and informed observers do believe that Teodorín is still his most likely successor. So both U.S. policy makers and American oil company executives could suddenly find themselves dealing with an unstable and volatile new leader.

Exxon is reportedly trying to sell its operations in Equatorial Guinea, although so far without success. But Chevron just completed constructing a 43.5-mile pipeline to pump offshore natural gas to an onshore processing facility, where it will be processed into liquid for export. It doesn’t sound like Chevron plans to leave Equatorial Guinea anytime soon. What will the Biden administration do now?

James North

Follow James on Twitter @jamesnorth7. James North has reported from Latin America, Africa and Asia for 46 years. He lives in New York City.