Mongomo Gets A Spiritual Lift

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It is interesting to note how the petro-dollars flowing into Equatorial Guinea are finding their way to every corner of this small country.

As well as a construction boom in Malabo and the country’s second city, Bata, there are some remarkable projects underway in smaller cities like Mongomo to the east of Equatorial Guinea’s continental landmass.

Much of the development in this charming little town is linked to the president, Teodro Obiang’s personal association with the place.

The long-standing president was born here and travels frequently to Mongomo for more relaxed meetings with prominent figures from home and abroad and to be close to his family and fellow Fang tribesmen.

It is a special place for the country, rich in flora and fauna and boasting important areas of jungle that are home to the country’s important gorilla population, animals that demand a special place in the country’s collective psyche.

A similar story to that of Bata and Malabo is unfolding in Mongomo’s construction industry with key government buildings being developed in a bid to de-centralise decision making away from the island of Bioko.

In this vein, the South Korean giant, SsangYong Engineering & Construction, the company handed the task of building the Marina Bay Sands Hotel Complex in Singapore one of the world’s most stunning buildings, has been handed a contract to build a complex in the city that has been dubbed the Mongomo Leader’s Club.

Since last year, South Korean politicians have been regular visitors to the country lobbying for important construction contracts as well as a participation in oil and gas fields and a second LNG train from the island of Bioko.

The country’s diplomatic efforts have resulted in an important breakthrough in the construction sector with the Mongomo Leader’s Club set to become the first building constructed in Equatorial Guinea by a South Korean company.

The company reported that it received a construction contract worth US$77 million to build the club, which will occupy an area of 7,530 sq m, comprising two units, a four-storey structure and another separate two-storey building.

Fitted out on a par with the very best five-star hotels, including a reception room for the president’s exclusive use, a VVIP theatre with a capacity for 150 people, a beauty salon, a restaurant, a conference hall, a fitness centre, and a small casino. No expense will be spared with a build cost of approximately $10,500 per sq m.

Not far from the luxury complex is the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Mongomo, the latest addition to Equatorial Guinea’s rapidly expanding collection of landmark buildings.

The expansive baroque religious temple with a capacity to hold up to 8,000 people and an area of 2,000 sq m was constructed by the Italian company, Moquinen Venture, over a period of five years at a cost of €13.5 million.

Equatorial Guinea’s official religion has been Roman Catholic since 1883 and significant investments have been made to restore many of the country’s churches in the last decade. These government-funded improvements to churches and progress in the country’s record on human rights have helped overcome historical difficulties between the government and the Catholic Church HQ in the Vatican.

Nigerian cardinal Francis Arinze, the president of the Pontificate Council for Inter-religious dialogue, represented Pope Benedicto XVI at the inauguration ceremony, which was also attended by five Cardinals, 45 Bishops, and some 300 priests from Central African region.

On the same day, the country’s minister of public works, Demetrio Elo Ndong Nsefumu – one of the busiest men in the country judging by appearances at the opening of new buildings almost every day – managed to combine work with pleasure when he tied the knot with María Jesusa Nchama Asumu.

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Bata – the beating heart of Equatorial Guinea

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Malabo may be the capital but the country’s second city, Bata, in many respects is the true heart of this small country.

As the gateway to mainland Equatorial Guinea, Bata has been transformed in the last decade as power has been devolved from the island of Bioko and the president’s hometown of Mongomo.

Much of the country’s most important investments are taking place here ranging from the expansion of the national football stadium in time to host the African Cup of Nations football competition, new port infrastructure and government buildings and courts that represent the strengthening of the state throughout the country.

Further along the coast, beachfront resorts and luxury hotels are being developed as part of the country’s plans to develop its tourism industry.

Its port is also undergoing a massive upgrade to handle the large quantities of cement required to keep pace with the country’s runaway construction industry.

Bata’s importance is underlined by the decision to play the national team’s home games here during next year’s regional football tournament.

The city has also hosted important events including the investiture of president Teodoro Obiang in 2009 held at the Ngoló Palace for International Congress and Conferences.

The same complex was used to launch important reforms to the political system introduced late last month. Parliament meets here regularly showing the president’s desire to avoid the government becoming isolated on the island of Bioko.

Historically the city was populated by the Combe, the tribe that dominates the coastal region, but as it has developed Bata has become a melting pot for Fang from the east of the country, drawn towards the city’s expansion.

Internationally the city looks to receive visitors and immigrants from further a field and international airports, palaces, conference centres and social housing blocks have been built to receive foreign dignitaries, handle the flow of immigrants and host international events.

Arguably the most impressive infrastructure development is the construction of a 5 km maritime causeway, which provides the city’s residents with a modern public space for early morning exercise and social events.

At the end of the popular architectural intervention is the Tower of Liberty, a powerful symbol dedicated to the country’s leader and those that fought with him to liberate the country from the former dictator Francisco Macias.

The country’s equivalent of the Eiffel Tower was completed in October. Equipped with a restaurant the tower is more than 50 m high and has foundations as deep as 18 m.

“Equatorial Guinea enjoys its liberty today thanks to the fight of the nationalists,” president Obiang told those present at the tower’s inauguration in October. “This liberty brings us the independence that allows the government to transform the country. Today Equatorial Guinea is on the path to development and in 2020 it will be an emerging country, which is why we are working hard to develop every sector. We have to make Equatorial Guinea a country of reference. We invite everyone to enjoy this infrastructure so that it will be permanent, because it is with peace that Equatorial Guinea will become a strong, emerging nation.”

The seaside embankment is now being repeated in Malabo with the construction of a similar walkway from the port and passing in front of the presidential palace.

Bem-Vindo a Guinea Equatorial

Portuguese has become the third official language of Equatorial Guinea, a sign of things to come in one of the most multi-cultural countries in Africa.

Equatorial Guinea’s surprising multi-cultural boom comes hand in hand with the construction bonanza that has sucked in workers from all over African continent and beyond, adding to the number of languages spoken in the principal cities of Malabo and Bata.

After the country’s official language of Spanish and second language of French, Portuguese has jumped ahead of other more widely spoken languages such as English, Russian, Mandarin and Arabic, largely due to its proximity to Spanish and the close ties the country is building with other African nations.

Angola, Sao Tome and Principe, Cape Verde, and Guinea-Bissau all speak Portuguese as does one of the fastest emerging developing countries Brazil, which has shown a strong interest in developing closer ties with the African nation.
Few other African countries have embraced or attracted so many different nationalities to their shores. The official population has surged to 1.6 million people from 600,000 in the last 15 years.

Much of the population growth has been a result of Equatoguineans returning home to share in the country’s newfound prosperity but the vast majority comes from the influx of foreign workers involved in the oil business and the growing numbers of construction workers and engineers being sucked into the building boom that has resulted from an impressive program of infrastructure improvements being funded by the government.

The monthly flow of foreign workers coming and going can be felt in Malabo’s international airport where Cameroonian, Egyptian, Chinese and Turkish construction workers queue for flights back home on one side of the airport while American and British engineers ending their three-week stretches on the oilrigs wait for their connections back to their respective homes and families on the other.

Even the Spanish community is growing following something of a rapprochement between the government of Equatorial Guinea and its former colonialist power.

Arguably the most visible group of foreigners in Malabo though is the Chinese, which seems well on course to be the largest minority in a few years.

Few figures seem available on the exact numbers of foreign workers or where they are from but judging by the number of bars, restaurants and businesses run by immigrants from China this part of the population seems to be the fastest growing of all the non-African visitors.

Large Chinese construction groups have been involved in the management of many of the city’s new landmarks, including the CEMAC parliament building, and the conference centre in Sipopo and trucks ferry Chinese workers regularly between the extensive number of buildings being built by companies like China Dalian.

Closer to the port Russian and Ukrainian seems to be more prevalent with former soviet block seafarers and engineers capitalising on their rich maritime history to develop one of the largest ship repair facilities being developed in Africa.
A surprising proportion of the country’s political elite speak Russian, a throwback to the country’s influence in Africa during Cold War and it is not uncommon to hear the locals saluting friends with a friendly ‘privyet’!

Malabo Means Business

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Equatorial Guinea’s capital, Malabo, most definitely means business. Whether it’s the corporate hotels – Sofitel and Hilton – doing a roaring trade in the city centre and close to the airport or the skyscrapers being built further east, there is no escaping the fact that the city is drawing in foreign investment and global corporate names in an impressive manner.

The investments pouring in to this small, little known corner of Africa are most clearly visible in the development on either side of the newly constructed six-lane highway that links the towns of Ela Nguema, Sipopo and Baney and ushers the money men from the airport to the capital’s most thrusting district, Malabo II.

It is here that the headquarters are being erected for the French, US, Egyptian, Swiss, Chinese and African energy and construction giants as well as new administrative buildings for international bodies like the United Nations and CEMAC – the parliament for the Central African States.

At the centre of this aspiring, modern wing of the capital is a statue dedicated to the country’s progress. It sits at the centre of a powerful cluster of buildings housing the Prime Minister’s office, the country’s most important private bank, CCEI, the Central African parliament building, CEMAC and the source of nearly all of the country’s newfound wealth, GE Petrol.

Spreading out from this nucleus of influential edifices are a range of government ministries and annexes held up as a symbol of the country’s efforts to strengthen its fledgling institutions.

A pristine Ibis Hotel and social housing blocks completed recently by the Chinese construction company China Dalian flank the banks and offices.

Further towards the airport, the illuminated twin towers of Sonagas, the state-owned gas company with a participation in the country’s Liquefied Natural Gas train, act as a beacon to foreign investors looking to get involved in the construction of a second $2.2bn LNG train.

Large tracts of land in this satellite city have been allocated to the construction of head quarters for the country’s largest foreign investors as well as a towering new Malabo HQ for the Bank of Central African States. Rococo palaces and steel clad contemporary architecture vie to establish itself as the dominant vernacular in this youthful stretch of the city.

Amongst the companies still to add their HQ to the growing list of towers are oil companies, Mobil Corporation, the largest producer of Equatoguinean oil, and Noble Energy, the energy group that is due to begin exploring for oil with Swiss trading house Glencore and GE Petrol later this year on its Block ‘O” later this year.

Their offices will sit close to a new headquarters designed by Portuguese architects, Saraiva Associados for the Ministry of Energy and Mines and being constructed, once again, by China Dalian.

Directly in front of the energy ministry will be the offices of China Gezhouba (Group) Corporation, a Beijing-based company carrying out one of the biggest projects in Malabo – the construction of a waste water, drainage and sewage treatment system in Malabo, Ela Nguema and the communities that surround the capital.

There’s no question this is where Malabo’s money men mingle with the country’s most important authorities to shape the city’s exciting future.

Some Good Hope

It’s not just presidential palaces and five-star tourism resorts shifting the reality further away from some of the ill-conceived perceptions of life on the island of Bioko.

As well as the important investments being made in Malabo II, the emerging business district being developed close to the airport, there are thousands of affordable homes being built by the government as part of its Horizons 2020 program – a scheme to transform the country over the next ten years.

Perhaps the most concrete example of this is the barrio Buena Esperanza, which now boasts more than a thousand homes built for the rapidly expanding population of Malabo.

The three-bedroom prefabricated houses – 75 sq m in size – are being constructed by Arab Contractors and paid for by the Equatorial Guinean government.

Sloping up the hill with a view down on Malabo’s harbour and the thick African rainforest to its back, “Good Hope” district represents the emergence of a new middle class in the Equatorial Guinean capital.

Land titles were offered to local residents on favourable financing terms as part of the Equatorial Guinean government’s investments of USD$173.6m in its social housing program in 2009.

Delivered fully furnished and judging by the number of four-wheel drive vehicles parked outside the houses, these new barrios are far removed from the outdated picture of extreme poverty often used to portray life for the majority of the Equatoguinean population.

The ambitious construction program is part of the African dream being pursued by president Teodoro Obiang to build a house for every Equatoguinean.

Chinese construction group, China Dalian, building with financing from the China export-import bank has built another 4,800 homes in 33 blocks in Bata II, the country’s second largest city on the continental mainland. It has also delivered the first 2,000 homes in high-rise units in the heart of the new Malabo II business district and is about to begin construction of more on the road out towards Sipopo.

In total president Obiang says he plans to build 150,000 social houses in the next 10 years as an integral part of the country’s social development program and has promised to buy all the houses constructed by international contractors for his people.

First Impressions

On arrival in Equatorial Guinea it is hard to square the reality with preconceived perceptions of the place. After more than a decade working in the UK, Europe and in particular Spain, it is hard to remember any positive coverage of the country to carry with you on the six-hour flight from Madrid.

Hollywood’s recent efforts (Wall Street II) to portray the country as a meeting point for complex global interests have not been much more favourable and if it hadn’t been for some revealing Wikileaks diplomatic cables leaked from the US embassy a couple of months before my decision to base myself in Malabo, the leap of faith would have been a far more daunting one.

Yet on arrival in the island of Bioko, formerly known as Fernando Pó and now home to Equatorial Guinea’s capital Malabo, it is hard not to be impressed by the scope of the country’s oil-fuelled ambitions.

First impressions last, they say, and it has to be said this small country is determined to leave an immediate and lasting impression on the increasing number of visitors passing through Malabo’s International Airport.

Nowhere is the progress being made in this overly ignored corner of Africa more apparent than the African Union’s City of Sipopo.

Sipopo is a 3,003,320 sq m, complex comprised of 21 infrastructure projects built by 10 different companies reflecting those countries with interests in shaping a new Equatorial Guinea.

Companies from China, Turkey, Russia, Spain, France and Equatorial Guinea were all involved in carving this remarkable complex from the island’s virgin rainforest.

Its very multi-cultural nature stems from the vision of Hassan Hachem, a French-trained architect born in Senegal to a family of Lebanese immigrants. He has become the mastermind behind much of the country’s recent transformation and is a good example of the can do attitude at the heart of the country’s decision-making process.

The complex was built in record time to leave an impression on leaders from Africa at the recent Summit of the African Union.

President Teodoro Obiang’s government ploughed €580m into the tourism complex, which has been held up as part of a plan to diversify the country’s income streams away from petroleum towards other industries. The oil business today accounts for 95% of the country’s gross domestic product and the government is keen to reduce its reliance on petroleum.

It is a formula being deployed in other oil-rich countries like the United Arab Emirates on an even larger scale. At the heart of the Sipopo complex are two world-class conference centres. The newer, Turkish-built conference centre, a kind of square bird’s nest shaped from steel and cement was built in just six months by the Istanbul-based construction company, Summa.

A 300-room golf and beach resort operated by the French chain Sofitel was also constructed by French group Bouygues to coincide with the meeting of the African Union in Malabo.

Its 1 km of beach and 18-hole golf course will no doubt prove popular with the international business executives pouring into the country in search of new opportunities.

It is a bold proposition to embark on such an ambitious project in such a short period of time but it seems symbolic of the country’s commitment and confident desire to transform its international image and project itself in the international arena.

The conference centre is due to host another summit between African and Latin American leaders in November and the Africa Cup of Nations football competition will also attract visitors to the island and the continental mainland in January.

They are important pillars of the government’s strategy to open the world’s eyes to the changes taking place in this intriguing and little known enclave of Africa.