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Africa's Untold Success Story


Rainbow Nelson

Moving from the 'Stone Age' to the 21 st century in two short decades. Equatorial Guinea is arguably the most impressive economic success in Africa. Rainbow Nelson reports from the island of Bioko, a small but wealthy dot off the African mainland.

Sitting pretty as sub-Saharan Africa's third largest oil exporter, Equatorial Guinea is going through one of the world's most remarkable economic transformations. Those that remember the tiny former Spanish colony as recently as 1995, struggle to recognise the place, while first-time visitors can hardly believe their eyes.

As recently as two decades ago Equatorial Guinea was one of the poorest places on earth. Left almost destitute in the 1970s by one of the most ruinous devolutions of colonial power in Africa's deeply troubled history, the country has come a long way since ExxonMobil struck black gold in 1995. Today the small country, with a landmass of 28,000 sq km, a nation smaller than Belgium, generates USD 10 billion a year in oil and gas sales, funding a government spending programme that is pulling in foreign investors at a staggering rate.

Little Equatorial Guinea's population has almost tripled from 596,000 in 1994 to almost 1.6 million as Guineans, who had been terrified by the brutal regime of the country's first post-independence president, Francisco Macias, return home, and foreign labour is drawn from all over the world to feed one of the world's most dynamic construction industries.

Despite such rapid population growth, 300,000 barrels of oil exported a day has powered the country from a gross domestic product of USD590 per capita in 1998 to USD36,600, placing it on a par with countries such as Spain and Greece.

"We had inherited a country that was ruined, which is very different to the country today," Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Equatorial Guinea's president, told HLPFI. "We were poor, one of the poorest countries in Africa, but today we have a situation of prosperity that is bringing progress, there is an economic bonanza, which we are managing fairly well," he said.

Chinese, Lebanese, Egyptians, and Turkish workforces, alongside African neighbours from Cameroon, Mali, Nigeria, Ghana, and Gabon, are building a new Equatorial Guinea that is far removed from its past, and the harsh reality of many of the African populations represented by the 52 leaders that descended on the Bioko island capital of Malabo for the African Union summit at the end of June.

The host with the most, Equatorial Guinea's president Obiang, the world's third longest serving leader, outdid all previous efforts to impress his African counterparts by building a new town especially for the event.

Sipopo is a 3,003320 sq m, luxury complex comprising 21 infrastructure projects undertaken by ten different companies from China, Turkey, Russia, Spain, France, and Equatorial Guinea.

Carved entirely from virgin rainforest, the project was the brainchild of Hassan Hachem, a French architect bom in Senegal to a family of Lebanese immigrants.

In a bid to leave a lasting impression on the world of the progress being made in one of Africa's smallest nations, the Obiang government ploughed EUR580 million (USD830.9 million) into the luxury complex, which has been held up as part of a plan to diversify the country's income streams away from petroleum towards promoting tourism.

The expansive conference centre that held the closed-door discussions about worrying events in Libya was knocked up in six months, using materials almost entirely imported from Europe and the Far East, in a feat of logistics managed directly by Turkish construction company Summa.

Five vessels and 12 cargo freighters were chartered-in to ship everything required from Istanbul, Turkey, including all the cranes and construction equipment needed for Summa to set up shop in Equatorial Guinea for the first time.

The Turkish contractor's success in co-ordinating the shipments even allowed it the luxury of opening the centre almost a month ahead of schedule as an extravagant present to the president on his 69th birthday on June 5. Built alongside a second conference centre constructed by the Chinese, 52 European-style mansions were built to house the continent's leaders for the two-day summit.

A 300-room, five-star, French luxury hotel, part of the Sofitel chain, with a mile of private beach, was shipped in for diplomats and the business community lobbying for contracts on the fringes of the summit. Brazilian chefs flew in with food from around the world to keep the summit well fed. As Africa's leaders debated the significant problems of the day, excavators were carving a path through the rainforest to create a unique 18-hole golf course winding its way through the jungle.

If Sipopo is the symbol of the country's desire to diversify and impress, it is not an isolated example of Equatorial Guinea's breakneck race to enter the 21st century. Petro-dollars are being ploughed into the type of construction boom seen in China and the United Arab Emirates.

"We have plans to construct more than 150,000 social houses for our people and have invited construction companies from all over the world to take part in this project," said president Obiang. "I guarantee to the constructors that our government will buy all the finished houses for the people of our country."

One such example of the leader's bid to improve the living conditions of the people of this country is the urban village 'Buena Esperanza' constructed in the Equatorial Guinean capital Malabo. Entire towns like this one are being shipped in from abroad, as the company relies heavily on imports.

Billboards for ExxonMobil, TbtalFinaElf Noble Energy, SocGen, and the Central Bank for Central African States line a three-lane highway from the country's newly refurbished airport to Malabo II, a modem extension to the island capital. The billboards, written in Spanish and Chinese, point the way to the country's multinational future.

In the background, near the social houses, luxury condominiums and five-star hotels for corporate frontiersmen in search of new opportunities have also been erected.

Trying to keep up with the breakneck changes in the country's economy are the principal ports of Malabo and Bata, which are both undergoing multi-million dollar facelifts that will enable the country to triple volumes.

Investors from different countries are ploughing USD492 million into Astilleros Abayak to make the biggest shipyard and shiprepair facility in the region capable of repairing panamax vessels.

On the other side of the island, the UK-based Africa specialist Lonrho is creating a port at Luba to cater to offshore contractors such as SBM Offshore NV and Technip, which are setting up shop in preparation for a new wave of offshore exploration that has attracted up to four project cargo vessels a month to the island.

Sociedad Nacional de Gas (Sonagas), the country's national gas provider, in association with Marathon Oil Corporation and Noble Energy Inc, is set to construct a second Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) train - a continuous processing unit that condenses natural gas from a gaseous state to a liquid state - in Punta Europa, the US energy compound located close to Malabo's airport

A new train will see the country ship another 3.7 million tonnes of LNG a year, adding valuable dollars to oil royalties of USD3.5 billion a year that are already flowing into the country's coffers.

The country's main port in Bata offers, more than anywhere, a glimpse into the quantum leap taking place between Equatorial Guinea's past and future.

While the construction industry is sucking in as much as one million tonnes of cement a month, panamax bulk carriers facilitate one of the most primitive of transfers - cement comes in and tree trunks go out

As part of government plans to extend electricity coverage to all homes, hydroelectric energy plants with a capacity of 591 MW are being constructed on the mainland, amongst other things, to feed the construction of a new city, Oyala, which promises to be the Venice of Africa'.

Tarmac two-lane highways already link up the country's main urbanisations of Bata and Mongomo, the western and eastern tips of the country's 26,000 sq km mainland. As they plough their way through the thick African rainforest they resemble a motorway to the future.

"The country really is the untold success story of Africa," said Yury Providion, the Ukrainian naval engineer who arrived in Equatorial Guinea more than 16 years ago with the ftmama-based shipping company Kalunga. Today Providion is working as regional supervisor of Spanish-based SJ Marine Ltd, the company elaborating plans to expand the shipyard.

"Few other places have progressed as fast as Equatorial Guinea in such a short space of time. It is almost like it has moved from the Stone Age to the 21st century in less than 20 years, "he said. 

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