Long viewed as a police state run by a corrupt dictator, Equatorial Guinea has in recent years become the fourth largest recipient of U.S. investment in Africa, following significant oil discoveries. Continuing concern about human rights problems in the tiny West African country has effectively blocked a proposed U.S. security assistance plan sought by Equatorial Guinea's President.
In 1988, the United States donated a 20 meter patrol boat to Equatorial Guinea's Navy to police its coastal economic zone. That boat, like most of the small West African country's large pieces of military equipment, is no longer operational.
But with official military contacts essentially dormant since the early 1990s because of U.S. human rights concerns, Equatorial Guinea's President, Teodoro Obiang, knew better than to approach Washington for formal help in getting his country's small military back into shape.
Instead he did the next best thing, approaching MPRI, or Military Professional Resources Incorporated, a private American security company run by retired military officers. According to an application submitted by the firm to the State Department in 1998, President Obiang wanted MPRI to assist in establishing "an effective national security enhancement program."
The proposed $10 million deal was designed to beef up the ability of Equatorial Guinea's armed forces to control the country's borders, both land and sea. It would have included training for both land and sea forces, including training in logistics and maintenance, and recommendations for new equipment purchases to replace such now-defunct items as that American-donated patrol boat.
But the program is now dead, according to MPRI spokesman Ed Soyster. He tells VOA there were objections by the State Department and some members of Congress concerned about human rights abuses in Equatorial Guinea.
"It's essentially dead from the standpoint of, I don't think the State Department is going to change, and there's some congressional interest as well."
The State Department did not totally reject MPRI's 1998 application. But when it finally responded last year, it said it would only sanction a coast guard assistance program nothing else.
Mr. Soyster says that was not enough for President Obiang who, he says is now likely to look elsewhere for assistance.
"Probably the president will look somewhere else to have the work done and there's obviously a lot of interest now and other countries will probably ask if he wants the assistance to give it," Mr. Soyster said.
Foreign interest in Equatorial Guinea has been booming because of recent oil discoveries. It is already the fourth largest recipient of American investment in Africa. Oil company representatives have visited the Pentagon to lobby for greater U.S. engagement in the country's security.
The prospect of Equatorial Guinea now turning somewhere else for assistance does not sit well with some Pentagon officials. One military source tells VOA that having MPRI in the country would be useful. The source fears the alternatives for Equatorial Guinea are likely to be China, North Korea, Russia or Ukraine.
But even this source acknowledges Equatorial Guinea's leaders are notorious human rights violators.
MPRI spokesman Soyster says in the company's discussions with President Obiang, he admitted to past mistakes but insisted he wanted to change his ways, with MPRI's help.
"He openly talked about his record on human rights and wanting to change that and hoped that we could be of assistance in that process," Mr. Soyster said.
Documents obtained by VOA show MPRI tried to sway the State Department to support its proposed deal by emphasizing how it could help in the human rights area.
The firm pledged that it would, quoting now, "keep human rights in the forefront." It also said it would help train soldiers not just for combat, but for helping the people. MPRI proposed training civic action battalions that could assist in road building, health care and disaster relief.
But allegations of human rights abuses in the country have not diminished.
In the past year alone, for example, Amnesty International has protested the alleged use of torture against some 70 people detained on charges of undermining the security of the state. The defendants have included members of Equatorial Guinea's political opposition. News reports say their detention came ahead of planned national elections.
Equatorial Guinea is split in two main parts, the island of Bioko, and a stretch of the African mainland called Rio Muni. It is bordered by Cameroon, Gabon and the Gulf of Guinea.
The United States closed its embassy in the capital, Malabo, on Bioko island, in 1995. State Department officials say there are plans to re-open a small diplomatic office there next year to meet the needs of the growing number of American oil workers. Officials say the mission will also be able to encourage human rights improvements.