Equatorial Guinea shot to prominence in 2004 with the involvement of a number of high-profile (but shady) international figures in what has become known as ‘The Wonga Coup.’ A group of mercenaries (mostly unemployed Black South Africans and Angolans) led by ex-SAS officer Simon Mann (formerly of private security firm Executive Outcomes) was arrested on a private jet in Zimbabwe. The group were extradited to Equatorial Guinea, and thrown into the notorious Black Beach prison by security services loyal to current President Obiang.
Mann admitted heading a coup to replace Obiang with a political opponent based in Spain. The mercenaries were however after 5 years all pardoned by Obiang’s government, in a deal that is alleged to have been brokered by South African President Jacob Zuma. Mann remains stridently outspoken concerning the figures of Mark Thatcher (son of the former British PM) and Ely Calil (a Lebanese business man) who he alleges organised and bankrolled the entire operation.
The motivation behind the coup attempt lies with the discovery of sizeable offshore oil reserves, and the potential for vast profits to be made for those who control these reserves. Equatorial Guinea has experienced rapid economic growth in the last decade, and has become Sub-Saharan Africa's third largest oil exporter. However, despite this economic windfall from oil production resulting in a massive increase in government revenue, there have been few improvements in the population's living standards.
The country has experienced political torpor for 3 decades with the entrenchment of the current Obiang regime. The President came to power in 1979 in a coup which removed the country’s first President (after Spanish colonial rule ended in 1968) Francisco Macías Nguema from power. During the 1970s, Nguema centralised political power in the office of the President and headed a violent and repressive regime which sought to silence all political opposition.
Obiang, on taking control of the country, declared that the new government would make a fresh start from the repressive measures taken by Nguema’s administration. He inherited a country with an empty treasury and a population that had dropped to a third of its 1968 level, with about 50% of the former 1.2 million inhabitants having moved either to Spain or to neighbouring African countries.
In 1982 a new constitution was adopted, and at the same time, Obiang was elected to a seven-year term as president. He was re-elected in 1989 as the only candidate after other parties were permitted to organize. He was re-elected in 1996, 2002 and 2009 with huge majorities of over 90 percent of the vote.
Most domestic and international observers consider his regime to be one of the most corrupt, ethnocentric, oppressive and undemocratic states in the world. Equatorial Guinea is now essentially a single-party state, dominated by Obiang's Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea.