Equatorial Guinea is a small nation in sub-Saharan Africa that sits on the southwestern coast of the continent. Despite its small size, the nation is home to one of the most oppressive dictatorships in the world, with its current president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, having served since 1979. Equatorial Guinea ranks as one of the lowest nations in the world for democracy, freedom of the press, and civil liberties. The European Parliament described the Equatoguinean government as “[showing] a blatant disregard for the most basic human rights” with “repression of civil society organisations and opposition politicians and numerous cases of torture and unfair trials.”

Just as concerning, however, is Equatorial Guinea’s problem with human trafficking. Business owners, recruiters, and others have been exploiting workers from all over the world as well as Equatorial Guinea, including children. Migrant workers often arrive in Equatorial Guinea in order to find employment opportunities, only to be taken advantage of. Those who are trafficked are most commonly coerced into forced labour or sex work; children are also subject to these inhumane practices.

The issue of human trafficking in Equatorial Guinea is deeply related to the government’s ineffectiveness and its mismanagement of the economy. 

Economy of Equatorial Guinea: Inequality Based on Oil

The Equatoguinean economy is largely resource-based, in part due to the discovery of oil in the 1980s. As a result, the Equatoguinean economy experienced rapid growth in the 1990s and 2000s, peaking at a GDP per capita of over US$20,000 in the early 2010s, the highest in Africa at the time. After a crash in global oil prices, however, the economy of Equatorial Guinea began to contract, with a -5.6% change in GDP in 2019. Equatorial Guinea also faces a problem with widespread poverty and inequality despite its large oil-based economy, which is a pattern that has been seen in some resource-rich nations (known as the resource trap). The resource trap describes a seemingly strange situation where many resource-rich nations actually have stagnating or even shrinking economies.

Despite the wealth that the country enjoys on paper, many Equatoguineans (up to three-quarters of the population) remain in abject poverty due to the government’s lack of effort in reinvesting its profits from oil into the citizens of Equatorial Guinea. Since oil was discovered in the nation, standards of living in the nation have actually been falling; while access to education rose in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, in Equatorial Guinea this indicator plummeted by more than 50% between 1994 and 2015. Living conditions are therefore substandard in Equatorial Guinea; the Centre for Economic and Social Rights estimated that only 41% of the urban population has access to drinking water, and the country has the third-highest rate of child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Oil is also not a permanent solution to the country’s economic woes. The Equatoguinean economy has been on a decline for several years due to low oil prices; with oil demand set to plateau soon as countries increasingly seek renewable energy sources, the stunning economic growth that had long benefitted the Equatoguinean elite will likely not reappear anytime soon. It remains to be seen what impacts this may have on the politics of the country. 

Government Mismanagement and Corruption

The country’s economic issues run deeper than oil, however. Even without falling oil prices and declining supply, the Equatoguinean economy is at a disadvantage because of the government’s aforementioned failures. The issue is not that there is no money in the economy; it’s that there is money but it’s been misappropriated and abused by the government. President Obiang and those closest to him have reportedly poured millions of state funds into offshore bank accounts and shell companies, often in Spain, for the purpose of money laundering and personal purchases. The money is invested into lavish projects, like vacation homes in Malibu and private jets, that have seemingly little to no purpose and clearly only benefit the ruling elite of the country. 

In one example, President Obiang’s own son was sanctioned by the United Kingdom for the “misappropriation of state funds into his own personal bank accounts,” amounting up to $500 million USD. In this instance, international actors clearly tried to step in and hold the Equatoguinean leadership accountable for its corruption, however, not much has changed as a result. Sanctions generally aren’t very effective; however, given that Equatorial Guinea’s economy is mainly export-based (and thus needs more customers), increasing sanctions on Equatorial Guinea may be a very useful tool in promoting democratisation. 

The Roots of the Human Trafficking Issue

Evidently, Equatorial Guinea’s socioeconomic standing has been greatly harmed by the current dictatorships’ extreme corruption and disregard for its citizens. But how exactly does economic hardship contribute to the problem of human trafficking?

Stuck in the cycle of poverty and left without proper resources from the government, many Equatoguineans have had to turn to other means of making money and surviving, one of which being participating in or perpetrating human trafficking. Faced with scarce job opportunities, victims of human trafficking end up accepting jobs where their rights are violated, their pay is withheld, or their personal belongings like passports are confiscated. 

On the other side of things, some Equatoguineans are the perpetrators of human trafficking, exploiting migrant workers from other countries for their own economic gain. Recruiters entice migrants from other countries with the promise of work, but that work ends up being quite different from what was advertised. Particularly vulnerable are women and children from other countries, who are often forced into the sex trade or domestic service. 

Both the political and economic situations in Equatorial Guinea contribute to the large human trafficking problem. The issue is not unique to Equatorial Guinea, however: the trend has been observed between other dictatorships (especially those in financial hardships) and human trafficking. For example, in Cuba, 100 migrant workers were forced to work in Curacao in inhumane conditions to pay off debts owed by the Cuban government.

Potential Solutions to Human Trafficking 

The Equatoguinean government has taken steps against human trafficking, which until recently were deemed to be insufficient by international observers (such as the US State Department). However, in the past couple of years, the Equatoguinean government has stepped up its efforts to counter human trafficking within the nation. These steps include awareness campaigns, setting up hotlines for reporting suspected human trafficking as well as for victims to seek help and increasing prosecution of human traffickers. This has allowed Equatorial Guinea to improve its standing on the US State Department’s human trafficking watchlist from Level 3 (highest) to Level 2, which indicates that progress was made in combatting human trafficking.

Despite these steps, human trafficking in Equatorial Guinea remains an issue. Corruption and complicity of officials mean that some of the policies that were officially implemented have not been effective. In addition, the Equatoguinean government refuses to release statistics on human trafficking in the country, making the measuring of progress (or lack thereof) difficult. For example, no one has been convicted under the updated human trafficking law that was passed in 2004; the law itself “did not criminalize all forms of trafficking.” In order to decrease corruption and apprehend complicit officials, which will, in turn, alleviate Equatorial Guinea’s human trafficking problem, increased democratisation and proper rule of law (both of which are associated with lower corruption) are needed. Furthermore, increased international attention and awareness about the human trafficking issue in Equatorial Guinea can also help exert pressure on the Equatoguinean government. 

The Interconnectedness of Issues in Equatorial Guinea

The African nation of Equatorial Guinea is under a brutal and oppressive dictatorship, ranked amongst one of the worst in the world for human rights. The state is also home to rampant economic inequality and widespread poverty despite its oil wealth. These two factors both contribute to a serious human trafficking problem in Equatorial Guinea, where many workers (including children) are being put to work in forced labour or sex work. Activists in and out of the nation have pushed for change in all of these fields, with progress being made by the government in terms of stopping human trafficking. However, these efforts have been deemed insufficient by international observers, and more needs to be done by the government.

Jonathan Chan

Born in Hong Kong and living in Vancouver, Canada since 2016, Jonathan (he/him) is currently a first-year student in the Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia. He is passionate about...