Bring on the Elephants

So the dream continues. The Nzalang have navigated their way safely through the group stage thanks to euphoric victories over Senegal and Libya and a disappointing defeat to Zambia. The Elephants from the Ivory Coast, the strong favourites to win the tournament now wait for the boys in red on Saturday.

The levels of anticipation couldn’t be any higher in the capital, Malabo, where the game will be played to a packed stadium.

The last 10 festive days have whipped the country up into a near delirious state. Few could have expected such a festival of football or the delicious victories, which have planted a surreal sense of optimism in the team, especially given its lowly ranking at 151 in the world. The enthusiasm behind the team has made a mockery of the rankings and the momentum behind the Nzalang has invaded the small nation, now totally focused on the next game.

Surely they won’t be able to pull off the shock of beating the team led by Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Kolo Toure and Yaya Toure?

Together these football superstars earn more in a week at Chelsea and Manchester City than the entire Nzalang first team earns in a year.

The generous $1m bonus paid to the Nzlang for their extraordinary victory over Libya is a weekly occurrence for these four premier league superstars.

The odds are stacked against the Nzalang but who would bet against another miracle. Through application anything is possible and its the ‘can-do’ attitude that has invaded the country that has been the most incredible result in this topsy-turvy tournament.

Vamos Nzalang.

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Vamos Nzalang

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Few could have expected such a wonderful atmosphere and a fantastic response from Equatorial Guinea’s national football team – the Nzalang on the opening game of the Africa Cup of Nations in Bata.

The country is flying after its national team beat Libya 1-0 in the first game of the tournament being jointly hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

It has been a whirlwind few days in Malabo and Bata as the preparations for the tournament reached their culmination.

Teams have been arriving from all over Africa over the last few days, with Northern Sudan, Libya, and Burkina Faso based in Malabo.

With many of the traditional Goliaths of African football missing – Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa – there is a feeling that it could be the year that the smaller nations, the David’s of the continent, make a mark on the bi-annual tournament.

The opening games were no exception with the players selected by Brazilian coach, Gílson Paulo, responding accordingly.

Ranked 151st in the world, few outsiders expected Equatorial Guinea to make much of an impression in their first appearance in the tournament.

Losing their coach a month before the competition was not seen as the best way to prepare for their Cup of Nations debut but once again this country has managed to confound its critics.

The team fought like lions throughout and finally got the goal they deserved with five minutes left. Both the team and its passionate support have been walking on air ever since.

As if to underline the giant-killing atmosphere at this tournament little old Zambia, recorded a historic 2-1 victory over Senegal in the following game.

The stage was set for the team’s heroics by a glittering opening ceremony in the gloriously refurbished Nkoantoma stadium that left little doubt that this small nation was taking its responsibilities as the host nation seriously.

The 40,000 spectators lucky enough to get a ticket for the opening spectacle were treated to a cultural smorgasbord that included a two-hour concert that featured local artists Anfibio, Besoso, Poen, Sandra Star, Yuma and Pili la Peligrosa.

A generous offer of a $1m bonus for a win in the first game may have been at the back of the players’ minds, but a team put together at short notice was undoubtedly moved more by the uplifting atmosphere within the stadium and the outpouring of national pride that comes with such events.

I haven’t lived here long but there can’t have been many happier days in the country’s history than this one.

Long live the Nzalang! Bring on Senegal and Zambia.

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.

Time to Explore

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Adjusting to life in Africa has been fascinating, if a little hectic, but fortunately there are a host of interesting places to get away from the construction boom underway in Malabo and Bata.

While most of the country’s expatriate employees spend much of the their free time at the exclusive surroundings of the city of Sipopo, playing golf or enjoying the best beach on the island, there are many other places to visit in this small but diverse country.

Most of Equatorial Guinea’s 28,051 square kilometres of territory remains untouched by the country’s breakneck development, which means that there are some wonderful spots to get away from it all and savour its impressive natural reserves.

On the island of Bioko itself, the trip to the towering volcano, Pico Basile, that serves as the imposing backdrop to the city provides a welcome change.

Reaching heights of 3.011 metres allows you to pass through all the different variants of rainforest on display in this part of the world. If you make it to the top the 4,040 metres-high Mount Cameroon on the mainland of neighbouring Cameroon can be seen looking out over the east of the island on a clear day.

If it is beaches you’re looking for then the sun-kissed islands of Corisco and Annobon serve up a perfect change of scenery and a dramatic shift in the rhythm of life.

Efforts to develop these two islands as tourist destinations for the local population and international visitors have heralded important investments in infrastructure of late.

In the larger of the two islands, Annobon, a new airport was inaugurated in October 2010.

A new port has also been constructed as well as hotel infrastructure to help open the island up to tourism. In total, the government has invested $400m in Annobon’s development.

The 600 m extension to the airport’s runway allows it to receive airplanes as large as the Airbus A320 and helped reduce its reliance on Equatorial Guinea’s Djibloho, the ship that has kept cargo and people moving between the country’s remote territories for more than a decade.

The Djibloho, has become something of an institution for the country’s inhabitants shuttling them to and from the different corners of the country on a daily basis.

Equatorial Guinea’s local airline Ceiba now offers services to the island, which is located 595 km south-west of the island of Bioko and the capital, Malabo.

Following a similar approach a runway and high-end beach villas are being built on Corisco in time for the Cup of Nations. While Annobon boasts a small local population of about 1,900, Corisco has had little development or human populations of note until work started on a tourism complex last year.

It was not always the case and long-forgotten aspects of the country’s rich history have been uncovered in the race to make Corisco habitable once more.

Those planning a return to the island encountered archaeological evidence of its importance to early European visitors earlier this month when they discovered the archaeological remains of an abandoned port and village constructed by some of the first Europeans to arrive in Africa.

What could be the largest and oldest necropolis in central Africa is believed to date back more than 2,000 years and point to the presence of predecessors of the Portuguese who discovered the island of Annobon in 1472.

Along with its neighbouring islets Elobey Grande, Elobey Chico, Corisco, has for decades, been fiercely disputed by Equatorial Guinea and its neighbour, Gabon, more for their importance in defining the limits of both countries’ offshore oil reserves than their idyllic beaches.

But a realisation of the finite nature of the country’s oil riches and the untapped potential of tourism in the country has placed greater emphasis on the latter in recent years. Beyond the country’s beaches there are also plans to build on the biodiversity of Equatorial Guinea’s different territories.

Some 60% of Equatorial Guinea is covered in largely pristine rainforest rich in flora and fauna. Efforts to preserve the thick rainforest from over-logging have been stepped up in the last few years including an initiative to designate 21% of the country’s territory as protected areas to preserve the biological, physical, technological, economic, cultural and social treasures they represent.

National Parks like the Monte Alen lowlands, a 200,000 hectare area on the mainland populated by gorillas and Pico Basile a 33,000 hectare park that covers most of the south of the island of Bioko as well as the Monte Mitra-Altos de Park, home to pygmy elephants are all preserved for environmentally-sensitive tourism.

Moving along the Rio Muni throughout the country’s mainland and following the path taken by Miguel Gutiérrez Garitano in his award-winning travel book, ‘La Aventura del Muni’ presents the more intrepid traveller with an intriguing insight into the continent’s rich cultural history and phenomenal natural treasures.

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.

Africa Cup of Nations

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The countdown to the Africa Cup of Nations has begun in earnest following the draw for the competition in Sipopo yesterday. Equatorial Guinea and its neighbour Gabon will host the competition for the first time in January / February 2012.
All the facilities are almost in place to host what promises to be a fantastic football celebration that will help visitors from all over the region to experience the world’s most misunderstood country.
Both countries are well advanced in their plans to host the 16 teams that qualified for the 28th version of the tournament.
Stadiums in Malabo and Bata, Equatorial Guinea’s main cities are well ahead of schedule and while Gabon appears to be behind its neighbour it expects to have its facilities in Libreville and Franceville ready ahead of kick-off on January 21, 2012. Equatorial Guinea will play Libya in the opening game followed by Senegal and Zambia in the country’s second city of Bata.
Games will be played in the 40,000-seater stadium in Bata, the largest city on Equatorial Guinea’s mainland. The decision to hold the home country’s games on the mainland promises to create a fantastic atmosphere in a city that has been transformed in recent times.
The Ivory Coast, Sudan, Burkina Faso and Angola will play their games in the New Stadium in Malabo. Built by the French contractor, Bouygues, the 15,250-seater stadium was host to Equatorial Guinea’s first triumph at this level, the victory of the women’s team in the 2008 female equivalent of the competition.
The other two groups of four: Group C; Gabon, Niger, Morocco, Tunisia and Group D; Ghana, Botswana, Mali, Guinea will play theirgames in Libreville and Franceville respectively.

CAN Tournament Fixtures

It is a statement of Equatorial Guinea’s progress that it is now ready and willing to hold such events. It would have been unthinkable for the country to have held the competition as little as five years ago but the progress that has been made in terms of road, airport and port infrastructure as well as the construction of four world-class hotels all ensure the competition’s success.
Unfortunately for the spectacle and the organiser’s hopes of attracting the maximum number of visitors to the tournament, the list of teams present in this year’s draw lacks some of the country’s illustrious neighbours.
In particular neighbours Cameroon and Nigeria will be missed as both football nations with a track record of success in the CAN and World Cups and as a valuable source of visitors. While Samuel Eto’ and Obafemi Martins will be sorely missed on the pitch their fans will be an even bigger loss to the tournament.
At times too much can be read into football and the parallels with power and economics but the absence of the continent’s most powerful nations appears to reflect something of a seismic shift in the region.
The presence of smaller nations like Burkina-Faso, Mali, Botswana, Niger and Guinea Conakry in Equatorial Guinea and its neighbour Gabon all reflect a broadening of the continent’s power base.
You don’t have to look any further than the hosts, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, two great examples of the new wealth distribution and subsequent power blocks developing in the region.
After a successful stint as president of the Union of Africa, Equatorial Guinea is determined to build on its time in the spotlight and is using its oil wealth accordingly.
With the world’s eyes turned on one of the most emotional of football competitions, the country is determined to show off more than just its excellent infrastructure in particular it wants to demonstrate its success in delivering peace in one of the world’s most violent continents. Equatorial Guinea has been free from the security concerns that overshadowed the competition in Angola in 2010.
Two of Togo’s squad were tragically killed during the last tournament in Angola after rebels from the province of Cabinda attacked the team bus.
As a country that has no internal security issues, Equatorial Guinea is almost an anomaly in Africa. While even its neighbours suffer from piracy and terrorism, Equatorial Guinea has been at peace since president Teodoro Obiang overthrew his uncle Francisco Macias in 1979.

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’!