In the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea sits Equatorial Guinea’s capital Malabo, one of Africa’s fastest growing cities trying to pull itself from obscurity.
To catch the world’s attention and take its position as one of the places that matter on the African map, Malabo is on a roll. New skyscrapers are sprouting each day; exciting new projects are coming up to spice up life while kilometres of roads are being tarmacked to keep pace with the new country’s economic status.
Thanks to its copious oil, Equatorial Guinea has one of the highest per capita incomes on the entire continent.
Whether on the busy streets or inside its cultural spaces, everything points to an urban regeneration after years of humility before the discovery of the country’s petroleum deposits in the 1990s.
And there are activities to keep the architectural masterpieces that dot the skyline busy. Besides the recent Africa Union summit that was held in the capital, most of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations soccer matches will be played here. The others will be played in Gabon’s capital, Libreville.
Ahead of the games, the West African country is completing several mind-blowing buildings that are part of an entirely new city, Malabo II, created from scratch.
On touching down at the Malabo International Airport, about nine kilometres on the eastern side of the city, it is obvious that here is a country on the fast lane.
The country rapidly shed the old colonial look to present a new, exciting face sustained by the new-found wealth.
In the mid-90s, this airport was a humble tin-roofed affair mostly serving the government, aid agencies and civil society. That has now been replaced by a smooth runaway a glittering complex.
There could be a few patches awaiting mending, but the image that awaits you is that of plenty, just like the country’s oil and gas resources that grew the country’s GDP 60 times, between 1995 and 2007. Then there is a huge airport, already in the works.
A walk through the city is like an afternoon inside an art studio where artistes are fully absorbed in their work. The diversity of ideas plus the freshness of what is emerging paints a picture of a renewed country and, by extension, a renewed Africa.
Chinese workers on this site are working on a stadium, several others just a few kilometres away are putting finishing touches to a new port. Exciting stuff is happening.
Hotels that easily transport you to exotic locations line up waiting for guests. Inside them are facilities that most African cities can only dream of.
This is an indication of a country whose ambition is to match serious international standards, at least in terms of physical facilities.
On a lucky evening, there is the diverse music of The Malabo Strit Band that plays different sounds from the region.
This is a band comprising some of the finest musical poets from the region, blending traditional sounds and occasionally belting out a few pop numbers in different languages - native, Spanish even English.
Another of the city’s spectacles is the Coastal resort of Sipopo (where the AU heads of state were hosted). Standing on the foot of Cameroon Mountain, this is where most of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations soccer events will be hosted.
It was opened by the Equatorial Guinean president on June 5, just a few days to the AU Summit, to offer accommodation to country delegates that were in the city to deliberate and take positions on different matters affecting the African continent.
The grotesque Sipopo, an entirely new facility, was built for two years at the cost of about 580,000 million euros. Some critics say that this was a show-off project to impress the rest of Africa, especially now that Equatorial Guinea’s president Theodoro Obiang Nguema is the chairman of the continental body.
Besides the meals and rooms that the village offers, there is the lush Sofitel Malabo Sipopo Le Golf, the first resort spa in Equatorial Guinea, with a private beach a mile long and a golf course. And Sipopo is just one project in a country that is currently a construction site offering work to over 200 construction companies; with over 700 mega-infrastructure projects under way.
Most of these projects are under what is called Horizon 2020 Development Plan, a brainchild of the country’s president, who overthrew his uncle to become the country’s leader in 1979.
Life outside the city is equally exciting even though President Nguema is yet to open up the political space to allow diverse opinions, a fact that most countries that preach democracy elsewhere have chosen to ignore in pursuing their commercial interests.
The country’s wild jungle, the unpolluted beaches and other touristic sights add to the beauty of a country that is one of tiniest in Africa. Then there are the cultural delights and the people who offer serious insights in the process, and the bubbly arts-cape.
But life has not always been this rosy. Some 15 years ago, this former Spanish colony with a heavy French accent was Africa’s problematic child. In 1995 for instance, the country’s foreign reserves which stood at $40,000 could barely cover one week of imports. With oil and gas, the same shot to $3.1 billion by 2006.
No wonder Malabo has become a major destination for foreign investment in the region, something that can be seen in the number of scheduled flights that land there every day.
That doesn’t mean that all is rosy in this country. Poverty levels are still very high, corruption cases keep popping up and democracy remains a mirage.
In fact, when Obiang Nguema took the helm of the African Union, several blogs were penned questioning credentials of this man who is the continent’s second-longest serving president after the embattled Muammar Gaddafi of Libya.
On education and training, there still exists a huge skills deficit, often blamed on a lull between 70s and 80s when former country’s president Francisco Macías Nguema closed several educational institutions.
That is why most of the productive sectors are still in the hands of foreigners, something that could be robbing the country millions of dollars each year.