“Howard, you know me to be a very smart man. Don’t you think if I were wrong, I’d know it?” states Sheldon Cooper, the fictional CalTech theoretical physicist of the Bing Bang Theory television series. The overbearing Cooper, with his fundamental lack of humility and toleration, reminds me a great deal of the recent Africa Leaders Summit in Washington and U.S. decision- makers being hindered by their smartest person in the room personas.
In the aftermath of the summit, we hear the usual talk of renewed partnership with the nations of Africa. The reality is it depends upon what name tag an African leader was wearing. A case in point was the tiny nation of Equatorial Guinea, whose president was to have been the recipient of a charm campaign to win him back into our circle of friends. After decades of being taken for granted by Washington the country recently gave the go-ahead for a Chinese naval facility at one of its Atlantic ports, catching the all-knowing American political, diplomatic, and military leaders by complete surprise.
The long-serving president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang, was a last-minute invitee to Washington’s big dance. Instead of a full-on persuasion campaign what Obiang instead received was nothing less than a cold shoulder. The 80-year-old, six term leader was so incensed that he skipped a White House banquet attended by his fellow African leaders and promptly left town.
All indications had pointed to a genuine outreach effort with Obiang. Advance work was conducted, including a high-level visit to Equatorial Guinea days before the summit by CIA deputy director David Cohen. The question remains why this sudden snub?
A centerpiece of the summit was a high-profile climate meeting at which Obiang was given the distinction of being seated directly aside U.S. climate envoy John Kerry. Despite it being a three-hour affair, not so much as a hello was exchanged between the two. If organizers thought the mere fact of being seated next to Kerry was going to woo a crafty survivor like Obiang, they were very much mistaken.
I believe it again comes down to personalities. One senior official with whom I spoke offhandedly joked that Obiang should have changed his name to Kagame, as in the long-serving president of Rwanda, a darling of the American administration, despite him too bearing a great deal of baggage and being in office for more than two decades.
Like something out of an advice column, the default criticism leveled by these detractors is Teodoro Obiang, the restless 54-year-old son of the president, now the nation’s vice president who has made unpopular headlines with his overseas mansions, penchant for fast, expensive cars and beautiful women.
Another standard argument is the November 2022 Equatorial Guinea elections in which, to no one’s surprise, the senior Obiang received 97 percent of the vote. However one may dismiss such elections as mere window dressing, they occur the world-over, including with the apple of Washington’s eye, Kagame.
While it’s true there exists a lack of institutional support mechanisms, and limited press in EG, there is also room for progress. The nation has been yearning to engage with us in matters such as health, education, security, and investment, but repeatedly came up against Washington finger wagging and indifference. This past year I facilitated a breakthrough U.S. government sponsored media training effort in EG that has also led to the awarding of a Fulbright Scholarship.
It should not go unnoticed that Equatorial Guinea is an oasis of stability surrounded by turmoil. To its north lies Cameroon, with its long-simmering internal conflict, Boko Haram violence, and a president in office since 1982. Nigeria, with its perpetual insecurity and unrest, lies just across the waters from EG. To the east is the ungovernable Sahel region, with its al Qaeda operatives and contagion of military coups, some of which has spilled over to the Central African region.
A Chinese naval facility on the Atlantic is no laughing matter. Yet, in retort to the disastrous charm offensive he received in Washington, President Obiang might well exclaim “bazinga!”
John M. Rosenberg is a widely published foreign policy specialist in Washington, and founder of The Rosslyn Group government relations firm with a focus on Africa.