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Equatorial Guinea's Leaders Accused of Pilfering Oil Revenues - 2004-03-26


A human rights group is accusing the government of Equatorial Guinea of pilfering millions of dollars in oil riches and calling for greater clarity in reporting oil revenues throughout West Africa.

The Human Rights group Global Witness accuses the president of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea of using profits from oil sales to finance the purchase of private mansions, rather than to improve the standard of living of his people. The people of Equatorial Guinea are among the poorest in the world.

Global Witness, which was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year for its research into the illegal diamond trade in Africa, is now focusing on the link between oil and corruption. It has singled out Equatorial Guinea as one of the worst offenders in mismanaging oil revenues.

But an activist with the group, Sarah Wykes, says the problem is not unique to Equatorial Guinea.

"This is a global problem in all developing countries that are dependent on revenues from natural resources," she said.

Equatorial Guinea's President, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, says oil revenues are a state secret, and he refuses to disclose the figures. A report by the Los Angeles Times newspaper last year traced payments by major American oil corporations to a private bank account held by President Obiang in Washington, DC.

Ms. Wykes says that oil companies are not supporting proposals to increase the openness of oil transactions in developing countries. She says the companies are afraid such measures would hurt their relations with the leaders of oil-rich countries, and reduce their profits. She charges that some companies even pay part of their profits directly to the leaders in some countries.

A statement released by ExxonMobil, one of the large oil companies mentioned in the Global Witness report, says it is committed to dealing with non-corrupt governments and supports the call to have an open purchasing process.

But, the statement also says ExxonMobil respects the rights of each host country to protect what it might consider proprietary information.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department says the United States advocates transparency and has worked to promote it. But Ms. Wykes of Global Witness says the U.S. government should be more involved in the issue because continuing poverty in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea could lead to political instability, and the country is fast becoming an important source of oil for the United States.

"Obviously, the Gulf of Guinea area is a hot spot in terms of oil," she said. "Equatorial Guinea for example is being called the new Kuwait. That area is very, very important for U.S. imports and by 2015 it will represent 25 percent of U.S. imports. So, there is a whole energy security issue there.

Global Witness says the priority should be for oil companies to show where the exchange of money is taking place in order for the profits from the oil to go to the people, not just their leaders.

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