On 26th May, 2013, Equatorial Guinea's ruling "Democratic Party", led by president Nguema Mbasogo Obiang (above), won all but two seats in the country's parliament.
Here, writer Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel meditates on the nature of democracy in his home country, from the capital Malabo, on the island of Bioko.
Adapted and translated by Jethro Soutar
All Guineans of my generation remember the awful inconveniences we used to have to suffer to get from one place to another. Anyone wishing to go anywhere had to carry documentation. At first we had to show our ID cards, and there were so few of us moving about that the soldiers could easily check the origins of everyone. Then political fervour grew, so at every checkpoint we also had to show our United National Workers Party membership cards. Every Guinean had to have one. Soon after that, it was perceived or decided that such requirements were insufficient; from then on any traveller not wearing an image of King Macías pinned to his or her chest would be severely frowned upon. Even today, people still walk about the streets with the face of the king, now Obiang, on show. It could be that some residual sense of fear means they think they'll be given a clout if they don't display the image of the general about their person. Or it could be that by taking to the streets wearing his image on their chests they are publicly declaring their love for the king, and thus might get themselves a nice little government post, if they haven't got one already. It's worth mentioning that these days those who leave the house with the image of the king pinned to their chests do so dressed in suits rather than rags, as used to be the case under Macías. It's also worth mentioning that we still have to carry documentation to go from one place to another.
* * *
After some 25 years in power, word reached the king that sovereigns in some parts of the world submitted themselves periodically to the will of the people, who were allowed to decide whether they might want a change of king. This was because it was conceivable they might tire of him, especially if he made certain decisions to disfavour them. I speak of Equatorial Guinea, and our illustrious sovereign is the aforementioned Obiang. Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.
Ah, back when it was very important to be considered a Christian, the same king placed a Teodoro in front of his Bantú names and patronyms. Today, democracy being universal, the fires used by the Spanish Inquisition to burn heretics having been put out, you can be a sovereign and Bantú at the same time. One doesn't prevent the other, just as courtesy doesn't prevent courage.
So word reached the chief of modernising trends in other parts of the world and he said yes, here we will do the same as elsewhere, only better. Surrounded by his court jesters, he got down to some thinking and then, without delay, put down in writing that it was one thing for a sovereign to submit himself to the will of the electorate, quite another that anyone else might be elected. Whoever heard of a sovereign dying without the sceptre in his hand? Obiang. Nguema Mbasogo, who used to call himself Teodoro, a Greek name, to make sure we knew he had been baptised. And that he was Christian.
So the king wanted to carry on being king but he wanted witnesses to say that he had tried to do things right, that he had submitted himself to the will of the people, to their best judgement and so on... And so the election campaign began in Malabo. The king lay down the first stone by calling his manservants, who prided themselves on service, and telling them to lay the table and summon the lackeys. The lackeys were the heads of the opposition parties who knew they could never be king but who wanted a few bags of money to stick under the bed. Infinitely fewer bags than were stuck under the king's bed, but a few bags nonetheless. They listened to the king, they kissed and embraced him, and they agreed to form a party which would defend the king's interests, because it rather suited them to go on being lackeys. Not for the first time. Then, in a typically over-the-top display of cunning, the lackeys persuaded the king that it would be better if some of them pretended they were free candidates and really did want to win the elections. But they would have to be somewhat pampered in order to look genuine, to dress in fancy suits and buy lemon to clear their throats and make fiery speeches, and so they'd need a little money from the bags under the bed.
Meanwhile, the rest of the lackeys hit the campaign trail. They carried bags of campaign material full of all sorts of items, all bearing the party logo. They set off in wagons and pick-up trucks preaching the gospel of a long-life in power, armed with plentiful sacks of rice, boxes of frozen fish, soap, t-shirts of all sizes, caps, skirts, trousers, crates of beer, women's knickers, buckets, exercise books, pens, dress-shirts, all kinds of badges (though all with the insignia of the party), alcohol, rolls of fabric, umbrellas, cooking oil – it was like a warehouse on wheels. A noisy warehouse at that, because the trucks blared out music and were laden with sound equipment to reproduce the sound of the voice of the Stentor.
I might add more items to the list: umbrellas (Did I already mention them?), balloons, plates, knives and live animals, which the campaign organisers had sacrificed so that heads of neighbourhoods loyal to the king could share the meat, blood, bones and fur out amongst their communities. The whole spectacle could be seen without having to leave the capital of the republicanised kingdom of Teodoro. When the lackeys did leave the capital, they took all this and more, enough to build a warehouse, and with the cash to do so too. Yes, cash, which they said they'd give to the communities.
* * *
Sirens sound in Malabo and two of the main roads are cut-off to traffic, because down them will pass none other than the President of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea, the Head of State, and of the Government, President and Founder of the Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea, His Excellency Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, once know as Teodoro, when it was good to be seen as a Christian. Radio and television announcers fill their lungs ready to cite all the titles of the old and new king.
It's the day of the great swearing-in ceremony and the new king's lackeys can be seen smiling nervously, having spent the night sleeping atop dictionaries in order to memorise the grand words they will use in congratulating the king on his 'overwhelming victory'. The new government is announced but there are so few new faces that the whole occasion is reduced to a mere act of homage. After hearing their names read out on the radio, the ministers swear, over a copy of the Bible, a Nácar-Colunga version perhaps, before God, before the Fatherland and before his Honour... all of which I place in capital letters so as not to understate the solemnity with which the lackeys swear loyalty to our King Obiang. They pay homage to him using all those capital-lettered wordsand swear they will serve the republic and the king come what may.
* * *
But alongside the lackeys, there are some folk who say they don't feel themselves subordinates of the king, or at least they no longer want to be subordinates. Indeed they refuse to be anyone's lackeys, no matter how many bags they get to stick under the bed. What's more, they ask where all the bags of money come from, whether it might be from the sale of oil, for example, and whether black gold is maybe not something the king can pull out of the sleeves of his lavish suits. Even that it might be quite the opposite, that the lavish suits are pulled out of the oil.
Because the syndrome of the emperor's new clothes rules in our politics. Intellectuals go on television to discuss a fire which has ravished houses, but what they never say is that the ravished houses actually aren't houses at all but rather shacks made from cheap wood and sheets of tin-plate. Nor do they mention the neighbourhood's lack of running water, which no doubt affected the putting out of the flames.
Despite claims to the contrary from those who benefit, be it the nepotists here or the multinationals from abroad, the US, France, Canada and other economic powers, things are not right in Guinea. It would be wonderful if the king who occupied the Guinean throne did feel naked for once. Then we'd get to hear what the false courtiers had to say for themselves, those courtiers who see him so richly dressed and whose spiritual and moral nakedness is there for all to see.
Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel is an Annobonese writer from Equatorial Guinea. He has written novels, plays, poetry, essays and film scripts, and is considered one of the leading representatives of what has been called “New Guinean lyricism”. Laurel now lives in Spain, in protest against the Guinean government.
Jethro Soutar is a English writer and translator of Spanish and Portugese.