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Equatorial Guinea struggles to diversify economy with tourism5 minutes read

For almost a decade, Sipopo has been the crown jewel in a strategy to lure high-end visitors to Equatorial Guinea

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A person sits on a chair on the artificial beach of the Sofitel Hotel, in Sipopo, nearly 16km from Malabo in Equatorial Guinea. (Photo by Camille MALPLAT / AFP)

Gleaming but eerily empty, the luxurious Sipopo resort with its five-star hotel and exclusive facilities rises from a tropical beach, symbolising the dilemma of Equatorial Guinea — a notoriously closed country that has turned to tourism to help fill its coffers.

The purpose-built town was carved out of an ancient forest in 2011 at a cost of 600 million euros, initially to host a week-long African Union summit and showcase the rise of the oil-rich state.

A 16-kilometre drive from Equatorial Guinea’s capital Malabo, the resort boasts a vast conference centre, the Sofitel Malabo Sipopo Le Golf hotel, as well as 52 luxury villas — one for every head of state to attend the summit — each with its own swimming pool.

There is also an 18-hole golf course, several restaurants and exclusive beaches guarded by police.

The swimming pool and the garden of the Sofitel Hotel in Sipopo, nearly 16km from Malabo in Equatorial Guinea. – In Sipopo, a seaside resort built, on the outskirts of Malabo, to host an African Union summit in 2011, there is an absolute calm. With few cars and even fewer pedestrians, the place struggles to attract businessmen and tourists. (Photo by Camille MALPLAT / AFP)

For almost a decade, Sipopo has been the crown jewel in a strategy to lure high-end visitors to Equatorial Guinea to diversify an economy badly hit by a slump in oil revenue.

But the town, seemed quite empty — an impression strengthened by conversations with people who live or who work there.

“It’s depressing, there’s no-one,” said a visiting Gabonese consultant.

A worker, who asked not to be named, said the complex was quiet year-round: “You can hear the sound of your own footsteps.”

The occasional visitors tend to be well connected, rich and in search of privacy, the sources said.

Many are guests of a government described by Human Rights Watch as corrupt and repressive.

One of the villas, according to the sources, was occupied by former Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh after he fled his country in 2017.

Empty lobby

At Easter, the 200-room hotel’s guests included a Spanish couple on honeymoon, a few families and some businessmen, who were all foreigners.

In the echoing lobby, a huge black and white portrait of the country’s 76-year-old authoritarian president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema — Africa’s longest-serving ruler — hung on the wall, watching over the vacant reception area.

A 1.5-kilometre beach — an artificial shore secluded from curious eyes — was virtually deserted, in contrast to a public beach near the capital. The three-lane highway leading from Malabo to Sipopo was mostly empty of traffic.

The inside of the conference centre in Sipopo. (Photo by Camille MALPLAT / AFP)

A hospital was added after the villas were built, but is unused, the sources said.

In 2014, a mall was built at the resort to house 50 shops, a bowling alley, two cinemas and a children’s play area.

But a hotel receptionist said the complex was not open yet, adding: “If you want to buy a souvenir, you will have to go to Malabo.” At night-time, shiny limousines arrived at a luxury restaurant to drop off diners.

Tourism hopes

Located on the mid-Atlantic coast of central Africa, Equatorial Guinea has flooded social media with messages of its allure as a holiday destination.

Plans to build a new passenger terminal at the airport in Bata city have also just received a 120-million-euro injection from the Development Bank of Central African States.

Figures for visitors are unavailable, and the tourism ministry in Malabo did not respond to requests for information. In the latest global compilation of figures posted by the World Bank, the number of tourists for Equatorial Guinea has been left blank.

But much of the tourism in evidence are business people, such as oil company workers, relaxing for a few days, or attending energy or economic conferences.

A few travel firms offer trips tailor-made for both luxury and adventure, but they also allude to the difficulties, notably of being allowed to enter the country.

Two people walk on the green of the Sofitel Hotel to play golf, in Sipopo. (Photo by Camille MALPLAT / AFP)

“The country has been a mystery to outsiders, who were discouraged from entering by a difficult visa process and a lack of tourism infrastructure,” says the website of British tour operator Undiscovered Destinations.

The firm claimed, however, that “things are changing fast… with an excellent road network and numerous hotels springing up seemingly overnight.”

Few Equatoguineans have the chance of staying in such places. At Sipopo’s hotel, a basic room costs the equivalent of more than 200 euros ($224) a night, while exclusive accommodation tops 850 euros.

The discovery of vast oil reserves off the coast in the mid-1990s has boosted the country’s gross national income to a theoretical annual $19,500 per person per year, according to the UN Development Programme.

But that wealth benefits a small elite among the country’s 1.2 million inhabitants. More than two-thirds of Equatoguineans live below the poverty line, and 55 percent of the population aged over 15 are unemployed.

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East Africa looks to end illicit gold trade

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Countries in the East Africa region are discussing the adoption of stringent traceability mechanisms for the gold industry to stamp out rampant smuggling across East and Central Africa to overseas buyers particularly in Asia.


Mining officials from the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) countries are in negotiations and are meeting next month to discuss the body’s Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Strategy which calls for harmonisation of gold export procedures including taxation and traceability and certification.


The ICGLR wants its member countries to adopt the strategy by mid-this year.


According to the director of Democracy and good Governance at ICGLR, Ambeyi Ligabo, It is disheartening to see so much gold being smuggled from the DR Congo through its neighbouring countries while much attention over the past 10 years has focused on implementing traceability for tin, tungsten and tantalum (Three Ts) in which little has been done in terms of monitoring the flow of gold in the region.


Mr Ligabo also revealed they have agreed that it is crucial to implement the ICGLR guidelines on gold trade because the region’s image has been smeared by smuggling. We hope they speed up the process so these guidelines are affected by March this year.


Rwanda’s efforts to boost gold exports has been hampered by constant reports that the country serves as a route through which gold is smuggled out of the DR Congo to overseas buyers. The government is firm that all its gold is traded legitimately.

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Teodorin Obiang faces $30 million corruption fine

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A French court has ruled against Teodorin Obiang Nguema, Vice president of Equatorial Guinea, in a year – long embezzlement process launched by a group of anti-corruption NGOs
Obiang was ordered to pay a $32.9 million fine. He also faces a suspended jail term of three years after a lower court found him guilty on a range of charges relating to graft and money
laundering.
Additionally, the Paris appeals court confirmed the seizure of his property, including a six-level mansion in Paris which had been valued at €107 million in 2012.

According to Marc-Andre Feffer of Transparency International France, the ruling is an important moment.
Obiang has appealed to the International Court of Justice, arguing that his residence should be protected as a diplomatic building. A hearing on the issue has been scheduled in The Hague next week.
His legal team has one final option for appeal left — they could challenge the Monday verdict before the Cour de Cassation, France’s highest appeals court for criminal cases.

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DRC’s artisanal monopoly to seek private partner

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A new state company set up by the Democratic Republic of Congo to manage the country’s artisanally mined cobalt could seek a private partner if the state does not have the funds to purchase all production, according to the country’s minister of mines, Willy Kitobo Samsoni.

DRC currently produces about 60% of the world’s cobalt. Most of which is extracted by industrial operators like Glencore and China Molybdenum, with artisanal miners accounting for about a quarter of output.

The country recently granted the new company a monopoly to purchase and market all cobalt that is not mined industrially in an effort to exert greater influence over prices.

According to Samsoni, the easiest way out is to be financed by the Congolese state, but if the state cannot raise the funds to buy all the artisanally mined cobalt, it will then have to enter into partnership with a company.

He also adds that plans for talks with financiers are on ground.

Samsoni further adds that the new company, Entreprise Generale du Cobalt (EGC) will be managed independently by state mining company,Gecamines.

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