Peter Maass has been reporting around the globe for numerous publications for over 20 years. For “A Touch of Crude,” his first article for Mother Jones, Maass traveled to the tiny West African nation of Equatorial Guinea. He touched a few too many nerves with his questions about oil money, corruption, and human rights violations and was ultimately kicked out of the country. He ended up filing the piece from Nigeria, where he was doing further reporting for an upcoming book on oil.
After returning to his home in New York, Maass spoke with MotherJones.com about the challenges of working in a dictatorial nation leery of western journalists.
MotherJones.com: How did you first get interested in the oil situation in Equatorial Guinea?
Maass: I’m working on a book about oil, so I’m trying to keep my fingers in as many pies as possible. I knew of Equatorial Guinea as a recent oil country, and I had always been interested in what happens when a country suddenly gets its wealth. I knew that things weren’t going terribly well in Equatorial Guinea, but then in July the Senate published its report on Riggs Bank. This was the clearest picture that had been drawn of any nation’s dictator and what he had done with the nation’s wealth. The details of the number of accounts, what was in the accounts, what moved from one account to the other, and real estate transactions. The detail of it was really quite surprising. You don’t see this very often, or at all.
MJ.com: Does the final story resemble your initial concept?
PM: When I was heading to Equatorial Guinea I really didn’t know what I would get — if I’d be able to see Obiang, if I’d be able to sit down and talk with members of his government or his family. Actually, I didn’t even know if I’d be able to get into the country. As it turned out, I was able to get much more than I expected — like talking with Gabriel Nguema, the president’s son. I knew about him, and he was one of the people I wanted to talk with.
This is one of the funny ways that things work in that country: I had Gabriel’s cell phone number, and I called him up and introduced myself. Gabriel said he had heard of me and said, “Why don’t you come to my office in 15 minutes.” So I went to his office and talked to him for about an hour and a half. It could have gone on longer, probably, but I ran out of questions. I was also able to find out about Abayak. I knew Abayak was Obiang’s company, and the one that had signed a lot of contracts with western oil companies, and so I was curious about it. As it turned out, I was able to find out that there was no actual physical structure that belongs to the holding company, Abayak SA. When I talked with Gabriel Nguema and asked him about Abayak, he confirmed that its headquarters are in his father’s house. I was surprised by that admission.
Also, it just so happened that while I was there the country’s independence day was taking place. Initially I thought that this was going to be a problem for me, because I had been told by lots of people that the government goes on vacation for a couple days before National Day and a couple days after National Day. As it turned out, the National Day was held off in this little town in the jungle, on the mainland, and I was able to get authorization to go there. The entire government was there, so I was able to talk to ministers. But most importantly, Obiang was there. I’d been trying to get an interview with Obiang, and in the end I did not get one. But I got to see him a lot. He gave a lot of speeches; he walked around. I was able to see him amongst the people, or above the people, and that was really valuable. I could see the whole strange security apparatus that he has. So this was very, very colorful and telling on-the-ground information about what kind of regime this really consists of.
MJ.com: Going back to your interview with Gabriel, you said you were surprised by his candor. Was it generally difficult, as a journalist, to get people to open up?
PM: I didn’t [generally] introduce myself as a journalist. I introduced myself as a writer. The words are somewhat interchangeable over here [but] people are not as defensive if you say you’re a writer. And for me it’s a perfectly accurate description. I’ve written a book, I’m writing another book, and [oil] is a subject I’m writing a book on.
After the first protest I had received about meeting with the Spanish Ambassador, I was with a mid-level ministry of information official, who was saying, “Why did you have to meet with the Spanish ambassador? That’s causing so much trouble.” And I said to this official, “Look, I’m a writer and this is what we do.” He said, “No, that’s what journalists do. If you’re doing political interviews, then you’re not a writer, you’re a journalist. And if you had told us your were a journalist, we would have paid much more attention to you.” So that helped me a bit—that I was working on a book.
MJ.com: You talked about just falling into some of the interviews, like the one with Gabriel. What about some of the other high-ranking government people? Was it just chance again?
PM: To an extent, yeah. For example, in Ebebiyin, there’s only one restaurant of any decent quality, and I was sitting there one morning and the minister of information came in and sat at my table. That’s kind of the way it is—very informal. We were just talking and I said, “You know, I’d like to talk to the minister of finance.” And he said, “OK.” And he pulled out his cell phone—and the ring tone, by the way, was a crowing rooster—and he called up somebody and spoke to him in Spanish. Fifteen minutes later, this guy strolls into the restaurant and he’s wearing sandals, and a pair of shorts, a T-shirt. And it’s the minister of finance. He comes over to the table, sits down, we get introduced, and he orders a beer. It’s about 11 o’clock in the morning, you know. [Laughs.] So there we are at Sunday brunch time, drinking beers in this tropical restaurant, chatting away with the finance minister.
MJ.com: It does seem remarkably informal. Is that unusual, in your experience?
PM: Well, this is a tiny country: population of 500,000. The result is everybody is much more accessible. In Nigeria, it’s just a mess. It’s a chaotic country — ministries and spokespeople and phones that don’t work, and huge traffic jams and planes that don’t take off. So logistically, working in a place like Nigeria is close to being a nightmare.
In Equatorial Guinea, it was like being a reporter in a small town in America. It’s like you’re a reporter in Podunk, Ohio, and Sunday morning you go to the local café, which is the only café in town. You go in there and have some pancakes and there’s the mayor and there’s the country registrar and they’re also coming in for their pancakes. You all say hello to each other, sit with each other and chat with each other.
MJ.com: Is there a lesson to be learned from this story for the person eating pancakes in Podunk?
PM: I think there are two lessons to be learned. One, that we are complicit in the perpetuation of this dictatorship and plenty of others that depend on revenues from American oil companies. We provide this dictator with billions of dollars, no questions asked, with no demands made on transparency, or on him sharing it with the people who this money belongs to. It’s a moral issue.
But there is also a practical lesson that one can hopefully draw from my story, and that’s that we do have power to act otherwise. The American government is powerful, particularly in a country like this, a tiny country with a deeply unpopular dictator who could be overthrown in a competently executed coup without much of a problem. I do think that the American government has a lot of influence that it has not brought to bear at all. Aside from the State Department [human rights] reports, which nobody reads, there has not been a single word uttered by any senior American government official that’s been critical of Obiang.
I’ve talked with a lot of people around the oil industry and they all say to me, if the American government required [transparency from] these companies, we would do it. The American government prohibits the oil companies from all sorts of activities, such as from engaging in any sort of bribes. That’s what the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is about. The American government can also use its influence to require transparency in payments, and that would have a tremendous effect. It wouldn’t solve all the problems that are related to extraction, but it would have a tremendous effect.
MJ.com: How typical was the man you met in Malabo who said he hoped the United States would help the people of his country?
PM: Without a doubt. When I was [going] to Ebebiyin, I got a local taxi driver and he drove me there. It was a five-hour drive, and we talked a lot. I remember him saying to me, “We depend on you Americans now.”
At the first police checkpoint outside of Bata — it was a joint police-Army checkpoint — and I had this letter from the information ministry saying I was invited to go to Ebebiyin to cover the National Day celebrations — this intelligence guy comes over to our vehicle and starts talking to the driver, saying, “Who is this guy?” Then I explain who I am, what I’m doing, and I give him the letter. And he goes off and comes back in a couple of minutes, and he hands me the letter, and then he said in Spanish, to my driver, “Take good care of him,” and told us to go.
That was really interesting to me because it showed that this guy, this intelligence official, had a very sharp awareness of the importance of the safety and security of Americans in this little country. It’s not because [Equatoguineans are] courteous — they’re as courteous as everyone else in the world, everyone else in America. It’s because they realize that America has a privileged position in their country, and they don’t want to endanger America or Americans.
MJ.com: Even though they’re not seeing the benefits from the oil?
PM: It’s their only hope. I went to Nigeria after I left Equatorial Guinea and was there for two weeks. Nigeria’s had oil for 30 years, and even in countries like that, people think America can help them. They have hope that the American government can right things. It’s kind of a corny thing, but I get this all the time. Not so much in the Middle East anymore, but in many parts of the world. So yeah, it’s not peculiar to Equatorial Guinea that people think America will make the difference for them and their lives. In Equatorial Guinea, that can happen. I think in a place like Nigeria, it’s probably beyond the powers of the American government to straighten out a totally messed up country. But Equatorial Guinea, a small country, it’s not that far down the road of disaster. It could be turned around.
MJ.com: Have you ever been forced to leave a country because of your reporting before?
PM: I’ve never actually been thrown out of a country. I’ve had to leave countries because my visa wouldn’t be renewed. There were two separate occasions in Serbia. In the mid-90s, I interviewed Milosevic when he was still president, and he didn’t like what I wrote, and so they wouldn’t let me back into the country. But then in 1998, they forgot I was on the black list or something and they just let me back in. Once I was there and was doing reporting that they didn’t like, I went to the police station, where you have to get your visa renewed. They refused to renew it and told me I had to leave within 24 hours.
Although it can make a good tale over dinner afterwards, I don’t like [being kicked out] because I like to be able to do my work discreetly and don’t like to have doors closed behind me; it makes reporting in the future more difficult. Usually I can find ways to do the depth of work that I feel comfortable with without being kicked out of the country.
MJ.com: Do you think you’ll go back, now that you have been invited back by Obiang?
PM: Well, no, because there’s no need to. The story is pretty straightforward and I don’t think there’s much more for me to do there. There’s more attention that people need to pay to the country, but there are many other countries that I need to travel to and pay attention to.