The former Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea gained independence on October 12, 1968. Francisco Macias Nguema, an ethnic Fang from the mainland province of Rio Muni who had been installed by the Spanish administrators to serve as a trustworthy collaborator, was elected president of the new country. Like many Fang who harbored the militant nationalism of alar ayong, which was characterized by impatience with Spain’s continued colonial presence, Macias resented his Spanish benefactors.[i] Resentment soon turned to distrust and paranoia, and the opportunity to purge the perceived threat of foreign culture in general—and “intellectuals” in particular—presented itself a mere 145 days after independence.
The precipitating event that ignited the mass killing is generally agreed to have been an attempted coup on March 5, 1969, which reportedly involved support from Spain, which had granted Equatorial Guinea independence in 1968.[ii] A few months earlier, in January 1969, rumors of an attempted coup led by the defeated candidates from the September 1968 election resulted in the detention and execution of the alleged plotters in Bata prison, followed by a state of emergency that resulted in a Spanish military intervention.[iii] After the events of March 5, former political opponents were murdered and senior cabinet members, diplomats, the Catholic Church, and agents of “Spanish imperialism” were soon implicated in plotting the coup as well.[iv] In response, Macias unleashed his paramilitary youth force known as “Juventud en Marcha con Macias” (Youth on the March with Macias) to seek out and expel Spanish citizens. By the end of March 1969, most of the Spanish population of 7,000 had fled the country.[v]
Macias established three security forces, the Guardia Nacional, the JMM and the Milicia, which were embedded in every level of government.[vi] The number of crimes that were punished by death expanded, as a police state monitored every level of life. In March 1969, Macias also closed his country to the outside world–banning journalists, a decision that the former colonial power, Spain, supported. Franco criminalized mention of Equatorial Guinea in the Spanish media.[vii]
Macias’ behavior became increasingly erratic as his despotic rule progressed, and he used his knowledge of traditional witchcraft to bolster his legitimacy and terrify the population into submission. He had fishing boats burned and roads mined to prevent escape. The economy ground to a halt and 90 percent of public services—including electric, power, mail, and transport—came to a standstill.[viii] The cocoa and fishing industries that sustained the economy ceased. He banned Western medicine, claiming it to be “un-African” and thus enabling resurgence in disease that garnered Equatorial Guinea the nickname “Death’s Waiting Room.”[ix] When he was short on money, he ransomed foreigners—$57,600 for a German woman; $40,000 for a Spanish professor; $6,000 for the corpse of a Soviet citizen.[x] He abolished religion, shuttered churches to use as weapons caches, and jailed or expelled priests. He waged a war on intellectuals, whom he cited as the “greatest problem facing Africa today,” and claimed that the educated classes were “polluting our climate with foreign culture.”[xi] By the end of his reign, only two doctors and fewer than a dozen technical school graduates remained.[xii]
Macias also created a cult of personality, renaming the island then known as Fernando Po (now Bioko) “Macias Nguema Biyogo,” after himself, and assuming such titles as “Great Maestro of Popular Education, Science, and Traditional Culture” and “The Only Miracle of Equatorial Guinea.”[xiii] As his jealousy and paranoia grew, he ordered the execution of all former lovers of his mistresses, as well as the husbands of the women he coveted. Before traveling abroad for state visits, Macias had political prisoners executed to dissuade others from conspiring against him in his absence.[xiv]
Despite the fundamental importance of the different ethnic groups that constitute the Equatoguinean population—the repression of the Bubi population by the Fang was institutionalized in the social structure—the mass atrocities committed by the Macias regime were primarily politically motivated. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the Bubi population comprised a disproportional number of the deaths, but victims also included the educated classes, the clergy, political opponents and foreigners.[xv] However, as Fegley notes, the ethnic nature of targeting decreased over time: “As time went by, the minority element and Fang chauvinism in the terror became insignificant for Macias’ paranoia had become all-embracing.”[xvi]
Little information exists regarding the rate of killing during the Macias regime. By Christmas 1974, refugees fleeing Equatorial Guinea to Cameroon, Gabon, and Spain were claiming that Macias had ordered the execution of more than 300 people since 1968.[xvii] The first to be arrested and killed were 11 members of the autonomous government that had ruled the country prior to Macias’ ascent in 1968. Subsequent purges included 22 high-ranking officials from Macias’ own government, including 10 of the original 12 cabinet ministers he appointed; nine members out of the 35-member National Assembly; five members of the state’s two Provincial Councils; two of the six members of the Council of the Republic; 67 civil servants; at least two dozen army and police officers and non-commissioned officers; and an indeterminate number of doctors, students, and others deemed to be intellectuals or political opponents.[xviii]
By the end of 1974, more than two-thirds of the members of the 1968 Assembly had “disappeared” and most of the senior civil servants were killed, imprisoned, or driven into exile.[xix] As Randall Fegley writes, what distinguished the scale and ferocity of Macias’ purges was that he not only targeted individuals, but also their families, and at times, their entire village.[xx]
Mass arrests also occurred. State-sponsored executions accelerated from 1974 to 1979.[xxi] According to eyewitnesses, the majority of the later victims were political prisoners from Brigade A of the Bata, Mongomo, and Malabo jails, particularly the notorious Black Beach prison. In its 1979 report, Amnesty International recorded a total of 600 prisoners who had been executed for political reasons or died in prison as a result of torture and other forms of abuse over a 10-year period.[xxii] One survivor of the Black Beach prison reported that during his four years in prison—from 1971 to 1975—he counted 157 prisoners beaten to death with metal rods outside his cell.[xxiii] The majority of deaths were attributed to beating and ill treatment during forced labor and occurred before planned inspections of the prisons by Macias and his bodyguards.[xxiv] Most victims were garroted and forced to kneel before the backs of their skulls were shattered by the blow of a machete or iron bar; others were beaten with whips and sticks.[xxv] A minority of victims were shot at night after being removed from the prisons. One particularly infamous incident of mass murder occurred on Christmas Eve 1969, when 150 political prisoners were lined up and shot in the stadium by security forces wearing Santa costumes while the loudspeakers played the Mary Hopkin song “Those Were the Days, My Friend.”[xxvi] In the same setting, 36 others were told to dig a ditch in which they were subsequently buried up to their necks and left to be eaten by red ants.[xxvii]
By 1978, the violence and depravity had reached such a level that Swedish researcher Robert af Klinteberg labeled Equatorial Guinea the “concentration camp of Africa—a cottage industry Dachau.”[xxviii]
The total number of deaths attributed to the Macias regime during its eleven-year reign generally ranges from 20,000 to 50,000.[xxix] During the Special Military Tribunal, Macias was initially indicted for 80,000 murders, although he was later found guilty of 500.[xxx] The figure of 80,000 corresponds to the estimates of murders cited by exiles interviewed in Madrid after Macias’ fall.[xxxi] Other sources have placed the number as high as 100,000—approximately one-third of the country’s population.[xxxii]
Entire towns were nearly abandoned, pillaged or suffered multiple mass reprisals: Evinayong, Akurenam, Nsok, Rio Benito, Kogo; the islands of Annobon, Corsico, and the Elobeys; Janche, Miseng-Ebu, Lea, Adjelon, Mbea, Malen-Yenvam, Hanoye, Ekuko, Batete, San Fernando, Basacato del Este and Basacato del Oeste.[xxxiii] In response to the widespread killing and political oppression, a large number of civilians fled. The total number of those who fled into exile ranges from 100,000[xxxiv] to the more commonly cited figure of 125,000,[xxxv] which suggests a higher total number for the combined killings and expulsions. Estimates of those who fled to Gabon range from 1,000 (UNHCR) to 60,000 (ANRD). Estimates of those who fled to Cameroon range from 300 (UNHCR) to 30,000 (ANRD). An estimated 10,000 fled to Nigeria.[xxxvi] Between 200 and 3,500 fled to Spain.[xxxvii] Fegley (1989) argues that after 1973, there were no less than 50,000 and more than 100,000 exiles Equatorial Guineans worldwide.[xxxviii]
Torture, political executions, and repression of minority populations increased markedly in 1978 and 1979 as the economy continued to decline and the refugee outflow increased. The climactic event that turned the tide against the regime was the execution of eleven National Guard officers in the town of Nzan-Ayung in June 1979.[xxxix] Lt. Col. Teodoro Obiang Macias Mbasogo—the brother of one of the slain officers, who was also commander of the Fernando Po military region, vice minister of defense, and nephew of Macias—waged a coup d’état. Macias retaliated with the support of loyal followers, resulting in a two-week bloodbath on the mainland that killed approximately 400 people in what appears to be the last recorded mass atrocity committed by the regime.[xl] After fleeing, Macias was captured on August 3, 1979, and subsequently held in the Marfil Cinema in Malabo.
Killings attributed to the Macias regime ended immediately, political prisoners were freed, forced labor ceased, exiles were granted amnesty, and no acts of retribution were recorded.[xli] Only a few loyal followers of Macias who had directly participated in the atrocities were jailed. Remembering that Obiang was a particularly brutal follower of Macias, the Alianza Nacional de Restoration Democratica (ANRD), the main exile organization, initially claimed that the coup was little more than a “palace revolution.”[xlii] An investigation into Obiang’s crimes during the Macias regime was never conducted.
The Supreme Military Council, which assumed administrative control of the country, decided to convene a trial for crimes committed by the Macias regime between March 5, 1969 and August 18, 1979. The resulting Case 1/979 began in Malabo on September 24, 1979. The charges brought against the former dictator and his accomplices included genocide, mass murder, embezzlement of public funds, material injury, systematic violations of human rights, and treason.[xliii] The Tribunal determined that the main perpetrators directly responsible for the killings were Macias, prison governors, the escorts of political prisoners, the officers and privates in Macias’s personal bodyguard, and the Juventud en Marcha con Macias.[xliv] The worst forms of political repression were carried out by the Juventud en Marcha con Macias, which was responsible for most of the atrocities, including killings, executions, torture, and razing of entire villages.[xlv] Macias was found guilty of 500 counts of murder and was sentenced to death, along with six of his accomplices; four other accomplices received sentences ranging from four to fourteen years. Due to fears of Macias’ alleged supernatural powers, a firing squad was brought in from Morocco to execute the former dictator at Black Beach prison.
We coded this case as ending through a strategic shift, whereby a more moderate leader came to power. The coup occurred within the existing regime and, while followed by purges, did not represent a complete overthrow of the government.
Recognizing that others may view the coup differently, we provide a secondary coding of this case as ‘defeat.’
Amnesty International. 1979. Amnesty International Report. London: Amnesty International Publications. Publications. 1979http://www.amnesty.org/fr/library/asset/POL10/001/1979/en/1df40b59-669e-4ca6-a078-7c9d1b5afa3d/pol100011979eng.pdf
Artucio, Alejandro. 1979. The Trial of Macias in Equatorial Guinea: The Story of a Dictatorship. International Commission of Jurists: Geneva.
Baynham, Simon. 1980. “Equatorial Guinea: The Terror and the Coup.” The World Today, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Feb.), pp. 65-71. Published by: Royal Institute of International Affairs. available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/40395170.
Cronje, Suzanne. 1979. Equatorial Guinea – the forgotten dictatorship: Forced labour and political murder in central Africa. London: Anti-Slavery Society.
Clarence-Smith, W.G. 1990. Equatorial Guinea. An African Tragedy by Randall
Fegley, Randall. 1981. “The U.N. Human Rights Commission: The Equatorial Guinea Case.” Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Feb.) 34 – 47.
Fegley, Randall. 1989. Equatorial Guinea: An African Tragedy. New York: Peter Lang.
Gardner, Dan. 2005. “The Pariah President: Teodoro Obiang is a brutal dictator responsible for thousands of deaths. So why is he treated like an elder statesman on the world stage?” The Ottawa Citizen, November 6. Available at: http://web.archive.org/web/20080612161320/http://www.dangardner.ca/Featnov605.html
Harff, Barbara, and Gurr, T. R. 1988. “Toward Empirical Theory of Genocides and Politicides: Identification and Measurement of Cases Since 1945.” International Studies Quarterly 32:359–371.
Meredith, Martin. 2011. The Fate of Africa: From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair: A History of Fifty Years of Independence. New York: Public Affairs.
Newsweek. 1979. “A Quiet Coup In ‘Africa’s Dauchau’,” August 20.
Roberts, Adam. 2006. The Wonga Coup: Guns, Thugs and a Ruthless Determination to Create Mayhem in an Oil-rich Corner of Africa. New York: Public Affairs.
[i] Cronje 1979 , 10.
[ii] Artucio 1979, 5.
[iii] Cronje 1979, 22.
[iv] Fegley 1989, 37.
[v] Meredith 2011, 239.
[vi] Fegley 1989, 70.
[vii] Fegley 1989, 72.
[viii] Artucio 1979, 14.
[ix] Roberts 2006, 21.
[x] Meredith 2011, 241.
[xi] Roberts 2006, 22.
[xii] Baynham 1980, 69 and Meredith 2011, 242.
[xiii] Roberts 2006, 22.
[xiv] Meredith 2011, 240.
[xv] Gurr and Harff, 364.
[xvi] Fegley 1989, 69.
[xvii] Baynham 1980, 68.
[xviii] Baynham 1980, 68.
[xix] Fegley 1981, 37.
[xx] Fegley 1989, 69.
[xxi] Baynham 1980, 68.
[xxii] Amnesty International 1979, 17.
[xxiii] Baynham, 69.
[xxiv] Artucio 1979, 34.
[xxv] Artucio 1979, 11.
[xxvi] Fegley 1981, 37.
[xxvii] Fegley 1981, 37.
[xxviii] Newsweek 1979, 34.
[xxix] Baynham 1980, 69; Clarence-Smith 1990, 603; Fegley 1989, 1.
[xxx] Meredith 2011, 243. The preliminary inquiries that preceded Macias’s trial produced a list of 441 Equatoguineans assassinated by the regime, with an additional 33 cases added during the course of the trial to bring the total to 474 (Artucio 1979, 32). This figure was meant to be indicative of the regime’s brutality, since the true number of those killed for being alleged “subversives, colonialists, and collaborators” was unknown.
[xxxi] Baynham 1980, 69.
[xxxii] Sundiata 1990, 65.
[xxxiii] Fegley 1989, 155.
[xxxiv] Artucio 1979, 2.
[xxxv] Meredith 2011, 242.
[xxxvi] Artucio 1979, 2.
[xxxvii] Cronje 1979, 25.
[xxxviii] Fegley 1989, 126.
[xxxix] Fegley 1981, 40.
[xl] Baynham 1980, 62.
[xli] Artucio 1979, 20.
[xlii] Fegley 1981, 40.
[xliii] Artucio 1979, 27.
[xliv] Artucio 1979, 35.
[xlv] Artucio 1979, 6.