Africa's Cup of Nations kicked off at the weekend. The three-week football tournament is causing huge excitement across the continent: a chance for Africans to welcome their footballing heroes back from Europe. This year, it's also an opportunity for one of the continent's worst dictators, President Teodoro Obiang, to spruce up his image and gloss over the grim realities of life in Equatorial Guinea under his brutal kleptocracy.
And it's all sponsored by international telephone company Orange.
The big money mystery
"The future's bright. The future's Orange," runs the telecoms giant's slogan. But that is of limited relevance to the citizens of Equatorial Guinea: up to 20 per cent of children there die before the age of five, and three out of five people live in poverty.
Despite these shocking figures, President Obiang's regime has somehow found the cash to co-host Africa's biggest football tournament, along with neighbouring Gabon (not exactly a human rights champion either, but mild when compared with its neighbour). And Orange, an education partner of Unicef, is sponsoring the occasion.
Goals win prizes
President Obiang's son, also called Teodoro, has reached deep into his pockets to guarantee that all members of Equatorial Guinea's national team will share a "win bonus" of $1m, and earn $20,000 per goal in their first match against Libya on Saturday. According to a spokesman, the prize is designed to give the players "an injection of enthusiasm and morale" and show "the popular support everybody has for the team''.
That's right: a morale injection of $20,000 per goal, in a country with 22% unemployment.
The president's son has form on this. Despite an official government salary of just $6,900 a month, he recently ordered a $390m yacht. He also owns a $34m mansion in Malibu, California.
His father is no penny-pincher either, reportedly paying Qorvis Communications, a US-based PR and lobbying firm, an estimated $55,000 a month to help with "reputation management". He has also tried to buy credibility through funding a $3m Unesco-Obiang prize for the study of life sciences. Following an international outcry, Unesco suspended the project indefinitely.
Human rights organisations describe the Obiang regime as one of the most flagrant abusers of human rights on the continent. Amnesty's latest report carries details of politically motivated arrests, harassment of political opponents, and the unlawful killing, torture and ill-treatment of detainees.
Betrayal of Africa
The Africa Cup of Nations, first held in 1957, should be a source of great pride for a continent that has produced such extraordinary footballing talent. Some of the most recognisable faces on the sporting planet—Didier Drogba, Yaya Touré, Salomon Kalou and Demba Ba—will be on show in Equatorial Guinea's largest city, Bata, this Saturday.
But it would be a betrayal of the people of Equatorial Guinea, and the tournament itself, if the grim backdrop to this year's event was ignored.
“President Obiang spares no expense to build luxury buildings, monuments, and major infrastructure projects,” says Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But all that shiny new construction can’t detract from the harsh reality of repression and grinding poverty in Equatorial Guinea under his rule.”
Further reading:Human Rights Watch's latest report on the sustained pattern of repression in Equatorial Guinea