EQUATORIAL GUINEA: Oil money draws sub-Saharan Africans
Thursday, October 23, 2008
A few years after the first US oil drillers arrived in Equatorial Guinea in 1992, hundreds of mostly West African migrants without travel or work papers followed. National police forces now estimate that one-third of the population – more than 300,000 – is from outside the country, with most migrants arriving illegally in search of much-hyped oil money.
“About 10 years ago,” said retired police officer Antonio Obiang, “migrants from Nigeria and Cameroon started arriving. The first group settled here while the second group thought of only one thing – going to Europe [by] taking advantage in the 1980s of readily available visas [to Europe].”
But now migrants are not so eager to move on from what has become Africa’s third-largest oil producer, said Justino Angue, a director at the country’s Ministry of Employment: “It’s not like before. We see boatloads of people of all nationalities, mostly West Africans, disembarking and staying.”
Migrants told IRIN that even without papers, they can slip into the country by paying security officials. They said that if they are caught and threatened with arrest during security forces’ periodic round-ups and mass deportations of foreigners, for about US$400 they are allowed to remain.
Set 10km outside the capital Malabo is a community built by ExxonMobil – complete with grocery stores, a gym and dry cleaner – where hundreds of people linked to ExxonMobil live. Nearby is another community for Marathon’s employees, contractors and their families.
For businessman Fabio Ocori, migrants mean one thing – dependable labour. “Employing immigrants is inevitable [in Equatorial Guinea]. It is cheaper and you do not have to declare them. If you want a faithful gardener, an obedient driver, a professional builder, all you have to do is call a migrant, illegal or not.”
Migrants pour in by the hundreds every month, by police estimates, to fill this constant demand. Local sociologist Marcelo Engonga told IRIN the influx has heightened locals’ wariness: “Immigrants have flooded the job market and the informal economy has created a social malaise among locals who are not accustomed to such entrepreneurism.”
Engonga told IRIN Equatorial Guinea’s newest street vendors have provoked anger: “Whenever Equatorial Guineans see a Beninese selling water or desserts, or a Cameroonian making a living selling grilled fish, they say these immigrants are in the process of stealing their country [from them].”
Malabo is filled with Senegalese jewellers and restaurant owners, Nigerian art dealers, Beninese, Lebanese and Chinese businessmen, and Malian street vendors.
Engonga said this mix gives rise to xenophobia, with locals seeing foreigners as a threat to their own survival. “To protect their country’s prosperity, they develop a defensive reflex of chasing off foreigners.”
“This little world of commerce has created a veritable parallel economy estimated to be several hundred thousands of non-taxed dollars every year that escape oversight,” said customs officer Jaime Ndong.
In 2007 the government banned West Africans from owning grocery stores. Nationwide, stores owned by Malians, Senegalese and other West Africans were either shut down or taken over by the state.
In 2004 President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo pushed through a law limiting companies’ foreign hires to 30 percent of the work force, but exempted oil companies, which can hire up to 70 percent non-local workers as long as the company offers training programs for locals. The law justified this higher foreign-hire percentage in the oil sector because of “the high level of technical skills required”.
Ultimately, demand for migrant labour trumps attempts to drive foreigners out.
“Equatorial Guinea is an oil-rich country with a fast-growing economy,” said a high-ranking officer in a European public works company who wished to withhold his name. “The problem is it seriously lacks a qualified work force. We are obligated to look outside the country if we want to achieve our goals.”
Despite the fact that oil has become the country’s biggest money maker, bringing in more than $4 billion – 90 percent of the economy – in 2007, according to the Bank of Central African States, agriculture is how most people continue earning a living, growing cocoa and coffee in the shadow of the oil economy.