Donato Ndongo, the writer from Equatorial Guinea, has just finished re-editing “Historia y tragedia de Guinea Ecuatorial (The history and tragedy of Equatorial Guinea), an exhaustive account of its colonisation by Spain, independence and postcolonial tyranny. With Equatorial Guinea, as in many other African countries, history and tragedy are almost synonyms: “The independence processes, demanded to fulfil desires for freedom and development that had been denied for centuries, were reduced to a mere formality, lacking in real content; in reality, the new states were enormous prisons in which it was easier to die than it was to live”, describes the Equatoguinean writer, journalist and dissident, Donato Ndongo-Bidyogo (Niefang, 1950) in the revised and expanded edition of The history and tragedy of Equatorial Guinea, first published in 1977.
In this colossal volume, edited by Bellaterra, Ndongo studiously retraces the wretched history of his country without economising on a single detail: from the dawn of Spanish colonisation to the despotism of the Obiang family, who remained in power for four decades, passing through the tumultuous independence period and the looting of the country’s natural resources. Ndongo, who is also a novelist and a poet, was the last delegate of Agencia EFE, the Spanish news agency, in Equatorial Guinea, a post from which he was expelled by the dictator and went on to settle in Spain as a political exile.
The Equatoguinean writer, journalist and dissident, Donato Ndongo. – Cedida
Despite living in Spain for more than 50 years, you have never sought to obtain Spanish citizenship and continue to travel with your political refugee passport. At one point in the book, you write that “the African writer is an exile among the exiled”.
It is an act that is coherent with my beliefs. When I was a student in ‘68, Equatorial Guinea achieved independence. There were not many of us here in Spain, the majority being university students. The government of Franciso Macías Nguema prohibited us from travelling to Equatorial Guinea; those that did go were forced to leave shortly after, and some of them were jailed. Why would I travel to Guinea? There was no university; there was nothing. The majority of us decided to remain in Spain, and the Macías government revoked our citizenship.
The reaction of the Spanish government was to revoke our Spanish citizenship as well: we were no longer Spanish because Equatorial Guinea was now independent. So, we became undocumented migrants, in no man’s land. We could not do anything. They took away the scholarships from those that had them, and we began to experience the life of the unwanted child. Many of us, although sadly not all, managed to finish our studies and take whatever jobs we could find.
I discovered that we could be considered stateless because we were completely undocumented. We could not even provide proof of our names. General Franco’s government blocked the UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) from coming to our aid with scholarships or with documentation. In 1978, a group of Equatoguineans pressured the government of Adolfo Suárez, who, for the first time, accepted the possibility that Equatoguineans could obtain Spanish citizenship. Some sought refuge under this and became Spanish. I decided against doing it, due to questions of coherence.
If, when we needed it the most, as students without a dollar to our names and without employment, they negated our existence, not so much as looking us in the face, now that I give talks at Harvard, I am not going to become a Spaniard. Simple as that. With the coup d’état in 1979, I went to the embassy and they gave me an Equatoguinean passport, which I used until 1994, when Teodoro Obang banished me from Guinea for doing my job as a delegate for Agencia EFE. I had to flee Equatorial Guinea; when I returned to Spain, they gave me the chance to seek political asylum, which is my current status.
Stamps from 1952
It is one of the least well-known stories that you recount in the book: the generation of Equatoguineans in Spain that were left to their own fate, defenceless, forced towards alcoholism, begging and prostitution.
We were kids between the ages of 17 and 25, and we found ourselves in a country that we believed to be our own, but which no longer held us in the same light or gave us documentation, work or anything. We were forced to survive. For women, the easiest thing to do was go into prostitution, but I know men that also did the same: Equatoguineans who went to the beach in summer to hook up with old German women. There was also begging; they evicted us from apartments because we could not pay and there were so many problems. Spain abandoned us and, coherent with all that, I do not want to be Spanish.
And they have tempted me with the offer of becoming an academic. If they want me to become an academic, then they should let me do it with my current nationality; if not, I relinquish my academic status. When Fernando Morán, a good friend of mind, was named Ministro de Exteriores (foreign minister), he wanted to make me one of his advisors, on the condition that I became a Spaniard. I told him no, out of coherence. Many people from that generation died: drugs, alcoholism… It is a story that people do not know about.
Jorge Alaminos, Tlaxcala
How do you explain this indifference, silencing or censorship that goes on in Spain with respect to what happens in Guinea?
For me, it is simple: racism. As simple as that. Spain is a racist country, and the governments in Spain are racist governments. It is not an institutionalised racism like apartheid, nor are Black people lynched like in Alabama, but ask any Black person that you encounter on the street if Spain is a racist country.
I remember when Salvador Allende was assassinated in the coup d’état led by Pinochet in Chile in 1973. I was here, in Spain, and I remember the solidarity shown even by the Spanish government, which accepted Chilean refugees. The same happened with Nicaragua and Argentina, but as Equatoguineans, we have never been integrated into what they called “la hispanidad” (Hispanic identity). It is pure racism.
Governor Bonelli in a visit to Evinayong, formerly Río Muni, in 1945
In the book, you write that during your childhood you saw racial segregation in school, that there were different laws for Black and white people. Would you say that Spanish Guinea was a white supremacist regime?
Evidently. And it is not me that says it. I limit myself to reproducing documents authored by the Spanish themselves. There is a book entitled “Leyes coloniales” (Colonial Laws), and within it are all the laws that Spain has produced about Equatorial Guinea since 1778, with the Tratado de El Pardo (the Treaty of El Pardo), until the book was published in the ‘40s. I do not invent anything: there were courts for Spanish people and courts for Equatoguineans. Why was no Spaniard ever sent to jail in Equatorial Guinea? Not because they were all little angels, but because they were sent to Spain instead, where they were judged under Spanish laws. If an Equatoguinean began litigation proceedings against a white person, the Equatoguinean had one jurisdiction and the white person had another. Justice could not be served. Yet I insist: Spaniards are not allowed to discover their true colonial history. Not only in Equatorial Guinea, but also in Western Sahara and throughout all of South America.
Claretian newspaper, founded in 1903
In recent years, a school of thought that seeks to counter the “Leyenda negra” (the Black Legend) of the Spanish empire and reaffirm its virtues has erupted in the public debate. The debate generally revolves around Latin America. However, what can the Equatoguinean case add to the discussion?
Evidently, for the colonial estate, Equatorial Guinea was a paradise. The “negritos” (formed from the Spanish “negro”, meaning the colour black or “black person”, and the diminutive “-ito”, which gives it a potentially degrading connotation), as they would call us, were all very well and living gloriously, enjoying Spanish protection. We are all aware of this rhetoric, but let us instead see the reality of it. If things were so good for us, with the smallest degree of freedom, how do these apostles of colonialism explain the occurrence of an anticolonial uprising? Are Black people as ungrateful as they claim? No, it is not true. The Equatoguineans are exactly the same. If someone is oppressing you for centuries, you get rid of them as soon as you can.
Macías’ victory in 1968, the anti-Spanish candidate, explains it all. Why not Atanasio Ndongo, the Spanish-backed candidate? Five months after independence, what Macías does is throw out the white population, and until now Spain has not re-established normal relations with Equatoguineans.
How to care for the cocoa plantation, a manual for indigenous people
In the past year, the memory of the colonial and enslaving past of the West has returned to the foreground with the Black Lives Matter movement and the toppling of statues.
Ten years ago, the Spanish parliament tried to create a law because in that moment they were discussing colonial reparations at a summit in South Africa. Parliament tried to do something, and the people opposed it in a manner that left me feeling surprised. I had already said that Spain needed to pay reparations, like all the enslaving countries, because Spain was also the last country to abolish slavery, and no one wants to know those types of things here. The number of insults I received! It is not only an issue within the right-wing; it is also in the DNA of a society that has not been taught about its history.
But that happens in France, where alongside neo-colonialism, there is a mass movement that supports colonial reparations. The same goes for England or in Germany, which declared 2016 as “the year of Africa” because its colonial past is not edifying in the least. These revisionism movements within official history have to come about, and there is a reason why they exist. Nowadays, it does not occur to people to justify Nazism or deny the Holocaust but speaking about slavery causes an uproar. Millions of people have died, thousands more have suffered, and we continue to bear the consequences of this up to the present day.
Where did the African tyrants come from? They did not emerge spontaneously; rather, they were put there by those who wished to continue the resource exploitation, and in the case of Equatorial Guinea this is crystal clear. Equatorial Guinea is the third largest producer of oil in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the people live in destitution. Equatorial Guinea’s money is circulating everywhere but in Equatorial Guinea, including in Spain.
What role did religion, and certain religious orders, play in the colonisation and the domination of Guinea?
The Spanish colonisation of Guinea was a missionary-driven colonisation. Wherever the colonisers could not get to, the missionaries would reach. They were agents of colonialization, and that was the role of the Claretian missionaries that Spain sent on the eve of the Berlin Conference in 1884. Add to this that in 1863 Spain outlawed all other forms of religions confessions. This included Paganism, of course, but also Christian confessions: there were Equatoguinean protestants, Equatoguinean Methodists…
When Spain effectively took control of the territory, it abolished all the other types of confessions and enforced Catholicism as the only official religion, something that increased exponentially with Franco’s victory. In Equatorial Guinea, National Catholicism, something I did indeed experience first-hand, was unavoidable. It was a missionary-driven colonisation, and its footprint is still visible in the mentality of the Equatoguinean to this day.
What is there to be said about the work of Antonio García Trevijano? Here in Spain, he liked to present himself as an exceptional democrat, but in Equatorial Guinea he was the legal architect of the dictatorial regime of Macías…
One of the things that Spain owes to the Equatoguinean exiles that were here was that, if the third republic was not proclaimed in 1976 or 1977, it was thanks to our intervention in unmasking García Trevijano. Trevijano was a disgrace. He never wanted to have a debate with me. When they unearthed archived material about Equatorial Guinea in October ‘76, they did a long interview with me in El País Semanal. I said what I had to say, and Trevijano lodged a formal complaint against El País. A few days later, the interviewer called me, scared, and I told him to allow me to take care of it. As soon as Trevijano found out that it was me who would act as a witness on behalf of the newspaper, he withdrew the complaint.
The role played by Trevijano is explained in my book: an ambitious man who feigned left-wing sympathies when he was in fact linked to all the capitalist groups in Europe and the United States. However, here in Spain, he was able to pass for left-wing and a democrat. Here, he said certain things, but in reality, he did other things. He had hatched a scheme with some French groups, and it was thanks to them that they were awarded the largest timber extraction contract ever awarded by Macías in Equatorial Guinea.
So, what is the real story? Here, he was a democrat, but in Equatorial Guinea, he was authoring laws designed to kill Equatoguineans. I write all about it in the book; Trevijano read it, and never took me to court. He is a man who is manipulating left-wing and progressive groups, as well as public opinion, and it turns out that in Equatorial Guinea, he is the advisor to a tyrant. Is that to say that Equatoguineans are not people, or that he would have done the same here if he had been president of the third public, as he intended? I handed the Trevijano dossier to Felipe González, Enrique Múgica and Luis Yañez myself.
Teodor Obiang Nguema, who received training in the Military Academy of Zaragoza, shot his uncle Franciso Macías and assumed the reins of power. Immediately after the coup d’état in December 1979, the King Juan Carlos made an official visit to Equatorial Guinea to support the new regime. Obiang returned the visit on 29th April 1980, and the two countries signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Spain and Equatorial Guinea.
How does that collusion of interests among the Spanish and Equatoguinean elites manifest itself in the exploitation of the country’s natural resources, whether this is timber, cacao or oil? We have seen it recently, for example with the implication of the former police commissary José Manuel Villarejo in this type of business.
There is an article of mine in ABC from a few years ago in which I say that Equatorial Guinea, according to the Spanish elites, has always been a colony for exploitation. They filled our heads with the idea that they were going to Equatorial Guinea to evangelise and civilise us, but it turns out that the Treaty of El Pardo does not make a single reference to the Christianisation or the civilisation of anyone. The objective was to enslave Equatoguineans and take them to America; that was the reason why Spain wanted to have Equatorial Guinea. And this has always been the case. It does not matter whether they are from the left or the right: Miguel Ángel Moratinos, Pepe Bono and Trevijano, as far as I know, are not from the right.
Long before they arrested Villarejo and the man who was the police chief of the Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas airport, I had videos of bigwigs from Equatorial Guinea who arrived in Spain with their luggage full of currency. They opened them in the Barajas airport; the Guardia Civil (Civil Guard) saw their luggage full of notes and let them pass through regardless. Madrid, or any other major Spanish city, is full of flats and urban developments that were bought by Equatorial Guineans with a suitcase full of money in the presence of a notary. As far as I know, that is illegal. But here, those things happened during the government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. And yet, in Equatorial Guinea, people continue to lack the bare necessities.
15th February 2021: His Excellency Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo receives his first dose of the Chinese-developed Sars-CoV Vero Cell Inactivated. China donated 100,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine to Equatorial Guinea. “For this reason, His Excellency Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has described the Asian giant as both Equatorial Guinea’s and the African continent’s best friend”, writes the propaganda website for the presidency.
At some point, sooner or later, Obiang will die. What are the future prospects you see for his country when this happens?
At this stage of my life, I no longer dare to make any predictions; everything is possible if it is not avoided. Obiang is currently preparing his son, Teodorín, who has actually been the man in charge in Equatorial Guinea since a couple of years ago. They are arranging things so that nothing changes; they want Teodorín to be in charge, the most stupid and most corrupt of them all, who does not even know how to read or write. Is this really who will govern Guinea? There really is no hope.
Nevertheless, there are Equatoguineans who could do it, but no one cares or is interested about that. In the same way, there were Equatoguineans who were better prepared to govern in 1978, but they chose Obiang because he was the man who could secure their interests. That is what is at stake. I do not dare say anything. I can express my wish, which would be more logical: after Obiang, democratic elections. From here, we will try to ensure that the best candidate wins, and not a demagogue like Macías, who only won in ‘68 because he said that he was going to throw out the white people.
A fascist salute from the footballers during the inauguration of the new stadium in Santa Isabel, now Malabo, in 1945
In the book, you write about “Afro-fascism”, an authoritarian and ultranationalist strain of anticolonialism and the independence processes, which is what emerged in Guinea and in other African countries. What defines this Afro-fascism, what are its characteristics and to what does it owe its existence?
Across nearly all of Africa, independence arrived alongside democratic governments. However, either a few months or years later, there were coups d’état, and the situation remains the same today. What does this mean? I reached the conclusion that in the colonial regimes, the type of people who rose to power, especially military officials, came from the colonial armies, whose primary role was to repress the population.
Therefore, when a civil or democratic president attempted to follow a politics that was inconvenient for the former metropoles, they reached for the Idi Amin of the day. I do not mention Idi Amin for the sake of it; he was a sergeant in the British army who had participated in the massacres of the Mau in Kenya. So, when Uganda tried to follow a politics that the British did not like, they encouraged Idi Amin to carry out a coup d’état; and we all know that was the result of that lunatic being in power. We can perform the same analysis, country by country, across all Africa.
That shows a tremendous alliance between the elites, which they foster themselves, as well as the companies that exploit the mines. Then they speak of tribal wars, but Africa has never witnessed a single tribal war. They are wars of competing interests, and by analysing things a little, this becomes clear to see. The war in Nigeria in the ‘60s cost more than a million lives, and it was described as a tribal war, of Hausas against Igbos. Nonsense! It was Shell; it was to control Nigeria’s oil. That is the reality of it.
Macias holding a speech in front of Franco
In the Macías years, and then later with Obiang, the dictatorships repressed the population with barbaric violence. In the book, you talk about the shooting of children just 12 years old, of beatings… What sort of footprint has this left in the consciousness and in the memory of the Guinean society?
That consciousness is embedded within the Equatoguinean psyche. In difficult situations, human beings unleash their animal instincts. When everything is okay, we appear to be good people, caring people and in solidarity with one another, but when there is a moment of unrest and danger, we all revert to self-preservation and defend our territory with the ferocity of a lion.
When independence came, the worst segments of society supported Macías. People did not know how to read, nor did they want to be ordered around by those who they considered to be wise. The first massacres perpetrated by Macías were of the small, miniscule cultural elite that existed at the time: three or four engineers, two or three lawyers, five doctors and a lot of schoolteachers. Those were the first of Macías’ victims because they were the ones who were able to question him. Ignorance united with a brutality inherited from the colonial troops, as Macías’ modus operandi was identical to Franco’s, was the only thing they had ever known. That is what resulted in all the chaos that there is today.
You write that “in Equatorial Guinea, the word ‘intellectual’ came to have a negative connotation, with a suggestion of guilt”: Macías, and later Obiang, strived to close off the country to any foreign influences and fuel contempt for culture, intelligence and historical heritage.
When I was in Guinea as a delegate of the Agencia EFE, and before that as a director of the Centro Cultural Hispano-Guineano (the Hispanic-Guinea Cultural Centre), I spent 10 years between there between ‘85 and ‘95. At that time, I devoted myself to studying and analysing what they said, what they did and why they did it. I reached the conclusion that these men were completely at ease, so wrapped up in their ignorance that anything that might pull them out of it scared them. Why is there not a single newspaper in Guinea? Because Obiang did not like the printed word, and he does not want it to exist. He prefers the television, where they make him look attractive, or the radio. He says something, and the next day, no one remembers what he has said, and he can say the opposite to what he said yesterday. And no one remembers! But if someone does remember, they are imprisoned. However, with a newspaper, it is different, which is why he outlaws the written press and did everything within his power to cause the Agencia EFE to stop working properly. I was the last delegate of the Agencia EFE in Guinea. Since ’95, there has not been a single journalist from EFE.
The standard of teaching is through the floor; they put up as many barriers as possible so that children do not go to school. Listening to a normal Equatoguinean speak Spanish is embarrassing. They speak Spanish worse than they did during the reign of Macías, 40 years ago. For these tyrants, de-culturisation and ignorance is another mechanism of domination. You only hear what they say, and you cannot contrast it with anything; there is no opposing discourse, and that is how the people grow up. Those that were born on 3rd August 1979, who are 41 years old now, have never listened to anyone but Obiang and his nonsense.
A few years ago, you wrote “This poet has his hands bound by the same chains that bind his people” in a poem. Is it thus not possible for a writer to free themselves from the chains that bind his fellow people?
That is what separates me from many of my compatriots who are also writers, but they coexist with the misery. And not only do they coexist with it, but they do not even see it, and many deny it! Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of a writer is their sensitivity, which is something that many Equatoguinean writers lack in particular, as do other Africans.
I do not believe that it is possible to call yourself a writer without possessing the minimum amount of sensitivity that causes you to suffer when you see, as I have, a mother in Malabo leaving the hospital at 11 p.m. at the night, holding the dead body of her child in her arms. If she does not have the money to pay for the hospital, given that no one has money in Equatorial Guinea except Obiang and his associates, the woman has to carry the body of her child through the night as she walks back to her village. When someone sees these sorts of things, when you see the amount of refuse in Malabo, as I have, where months pass without anyone collecting the rubbish from the streets, where you open the door and you see the dump in front of you… If a writer is not sensitive to these things then they should quit while they are ahead.
I have always believed in María Zambrano’s idea that the duty of the writer is to write what cannot be said. If not, why do we exist? To parrot the discourse of the powerful? We are here to reveal what is hidden. I think that the most important writers have done this; they have acted as the witnesses of their own time.
His Excellency Teodor Obiang Mangue, vice president of the republic, commander of the defence and security of the state, known as “El Patrón” (The Boss), with some self-propagandising posts on his Instagram page, where he is known as “teddynguema”. Without question, the most amusing of the lot is the one where he is swimming with his fellow sharks in the Maldivian sea. All the photos in this article have been added by the Tlaxcala editorial team.
Historia y tragedia de Guinea Ecuatorial