Early in the day on March 7, a large explosion ripped through blocks of Bata, the largest city in Equatorial Guinea. The death toll continues to rise, with official reports hovering around a death toll of nearly 100 and an injured count close to 1,000, according to Reuters. The president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, appeared in a press conference after the blast, pleading for international aid to help his small nation provide adequate medical care to those injured in the explosion and to rebuild his country’s most important economic and trading hub.
The massive explosion originated on an Equatorial Guinean military base and has been officially blamed on negligence relating to the improper storage of munitions. These high caliber munitions, which were stored in a depot on Bata’s Nkoantoma Military Base, were said to have exploded after a fire on neighboring land migrated onto the base. While Deutsche Welle has quoted President Obiang Nguema as saying the original fire was started by “neighbors at nearby farms,” Al Jazeera attributes the original fires to soldiers who were ordered to burn bush right outside the confines of the base.
This disaster has renewed the voice of the opposition party in calling for President Obiang Nguema’s removal from office. His administration, which has been in power since 1979 after he executed his uncle and former president in a bloody coup, has been accused of rampant corruption and embezzlement for decades. This recent tragedy has only strengthened the opposition’s calls for both him and his son, who serves a dual role as Equatorial Guinean Vice President and Defense Minister, to be removed from office.
The corruption claims against President Obiang Nguema are based on both his personal economic situation and that of the country. Equatorial Guinea is a small, oil-rich nation with a little over 1.5 million residents and one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world at $10,000, according to the Wall Street Journal. However, majority of the country’s residents actually live on less than $2 a day while President Obiang Nguema has amassed great wealth.
President Obiang Nguema and his family have attempted to move much of their wealth offshore. CNN reports that in 2019, a collection of $13 million in super cars was seized and sold as part of a money-laundering investigation into President Obiang Nguema’s son in Switzerland. In the same year, the president was forced to agree to a $30 million dollar settlement with the United States Government in a case that centered on his corruption.
Given the high levels of corruption within the Nguema administration, as well as the country’s pandemic-related economic retraction, the millions of dollars in damage caused by the recent explosion will only make the country’s economic situation worse.
To help prevent complete economic disaster, President Nguema has turned to the international community for disaster aid and economic relief. So far only Equatorial Guinea’s previous colonial ruler, Spain, has reached out and pledged humanitarian resources. Without more substantial aid in addition to Spain’s contribution, it is likely that those injured in the explosion will continue to suffer. The Associated Press reports that most of the hospitals in and around the city of Bata, which were already strained due to COVID-19, became overwhelmed by the sudden increase in patients, with many victims still in need of care days later.
Given the severity of the blast, in both human and economic terms, as well as the political pressure on the Nguema administration from opposition, the political future of Equatorial Guinea is still to be decided. Only time will tell if this tragedy will be the end of the Nguema presidency or if his response can engender renewed good will towards the administration among the people of Equatorial Guinea.