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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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.

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.