SD TUCKER examines the murderous legacy of Francisco Macías Nguema, the demented Iboga-tripping African despot who got high on banning books, education and clever people from his country, all whilst developing a unique definition of the term ‘brain-food’.
He don’t need no education sd tucker
There is a long-running medical controversy as to whether or not the prolonged abuse of recreational drugs and hallucinogens can cause serious mental disorders amongst their users. A brief examination of the extraordinarily bizarre and bloodthirsty career of Francisco Macías Nguema (19241979), President and self-proclaimed Unique Miracle of Equatorial Guinea between 1968 and 1979, would suggest that this debate should immediately be closed. Both a dope and a fiend, the notoriously dense and uneducable Macías was so devoted to allnight benders smoking weed and drinking brews made from the leaves of the local hallucinogenic Iboga plant that it was said the best time for diplomats to get him on the phone was at around 3am, when he and his cronies were sitting around after dark passing joints between one another, and devising ever-more delirious plans for running – or, more accurately, ruining – the country.
Such sessions would result in ludicrous escapades in which, for example, Macías would suddenly call up the electricitygenerating plant in the capital Malabo and order it to stop using all industrial lubricants, because he felt up to the task of greasing the engines himself with his ‘magical powers’. The end result, naturally, was that the generators blew up. Not that Macías cared. When he left the capital he often ordered the plant be shut down anyway, seeing as power was “no longer necessary” when he wasn’t in town. So chaotic and corpse-ridden did Equatorial Guinea become under Macías’s 11-year period of quasi-genocidal misrule that it is estimated somewhere between 50-70 per cent of the tiny African nation’s population fled beyond its borders while they still could. Once Macías realised what was happening, he had roads leading out of the country mined to prevent escape. When people then tried to flee by sea, he had his security-services destroy every boat they could find. Those who were left behind could be killed for the most absurd of reasons, such as wearing ‘illegal spectacles’ against his prior command. Estimates vary, but one commonly cited figure is that Macías slaughtered some 50-70,000 persons out of a minuscule total population of about 300,000. Completely accurate estimates are hard to come by, however, because the profoundly anti-intellectual Macías disapproved of the very concept of statistics and so refused to allow his government to keep any; when a civil-servant produced some figures which displeased him one day, Macías allegedly ordered the man be chopped up into little pieces in order to “help him learn how to count”. Macías’s habitual violence was often as inventive as it was barbaric. On Christmas Eve 1975, he ordered his soldiers to dress as Santa Claus and then festively execute 150 of his opponents in the middle of a football stadium whilst Mary Hopkins’s charming ballad ‘Those Were the Days’ was relayed on a continuous loop through loudspeakers to enhance the mood. Another time, he had 36 prisoners buried up to their necks in soil, then left them out to be eaten alive by ants, face-first. How could such an obvious lunatic possibly have ever been elected to a position of ultimate power?
The rise of Francisco Macías Nguema is the most cautionary parable of the post-colonial era. When he was born in 1924 his land was owned by Spain and operated under the name of Spanish Guinea, a small but wellrun colony. The ‘country’ itself was a wholly artificial invention, consisting mainly of a rectangle of land located in the armpit of West Africa, known as Río Muni, and the world’s most embarrassingly named island, Fernando Poo (famed among forteans for its key role in the Illuminatus! Trilogy), neither of whose native populations had much in common with one another beyond rule from Madrid. Spain during most of Macías lifetime had its own dictator, in the shape of the fascist General Francisco Franco. No friend of democracy, when global pressure was placed upon European powers to free their African colonies during the 1950s and ‘60s, Franco sought to implement some kind of fudge in which Spanish colonists would still retain many of the key posts in indispensible professions like law, industry, agriculture and the civil service: a native president and cabinet would be in overall charge, but the nation would be basically ungovernable without the continued consent of the white settlers, who were the only ones properly trained to keep civil society going. What Franco did not anticipate, however, was that the nation’s first post-independence President would be an outright psychopath who simply wouldn’t care if the entire country began to collapse around him.
Macías was born in 1924, the son of a prominent witchdoctor in the local Bwiti cult, which was widespread amongst the Fang people of Río Muni. Disturbingly, his
A SHAMELESSS PSYCHOPATH, HE PROVED A NATURAL ONSCREEN TALENT
dad is thought to have sacrificed Macías’s little brother in the cult’s name and then set his bones up as a centre of ritual-worship. Later, the nine-year-old Macías had to watch as a Spanish colonial administrator beat his father to death to teach the natives a lesson. A week later, Macías’s mother committed suicide. That’s enough to drive any child insane, and Macías duly obliged; not that his early patrons in life, a group of Spanish Catholic missionary priests, noticed. As the son of a witchdoctor, the lad seemed a prize convert, and when the priests took him under their wing he seized the opportunity for social advancement, even adopting the Spanish name of Macías from one of them. Given his attitude towards the Catholic Church after gaining power – decreeing all services had to begin with outlandish hymns of praise in his name, forcing all priests to walk barefoot across hot coals, then finally banning religion altogether and using churches to store weaponry – it seems surprising that Macías was once such a keen Christian, but this simply fits in with a lifelong pattern of him temporarily pretending to be whatever other people wanted him to be, just so long as it was to his current advantage. What the priests wanted Macías to be most of all was a scholar, but he proved to be barely literate. It took him three goes to pass the exam giving him the status of ‘ emancípado’, or ‘civilised citizen’, which should have opened the door to a better life as a civil servant; but Macías s hatred of book-learning was as ingrained as his inaptitude for it, so he went off to become a humble farmer in the remote province of Mongomo.
However, during his time with the missionaries Macías had managed to master a very basic form of spoken Spanish, to the extent, perhaps, that Manuel from
Fawlty Towers ever managed to master English. Mongomo’s Spanish officials, whose command of the Fang language was similarly appalling, quickly sought to exploit Macías s dubious linguistic ‘skills’ and appointed him as a court-interpreter. Unfortunately, he shamelessly abused his position to gain bribes from accused Fang in the dock by threatening to ‘translate’ their testimonies in such a way that they would end up with far heavier punishments than they deserved. Naturally, the local Fang began to fear Macías, something the colonists mistook for respect. As such, they made him Mayor of Mongomo, and when the movement for independence took off he was introduced into the world of national politics. The only part of his education that Macías had really understood was the end-of-day propaganda hour, when pupils were made to constantly repeat slogans in praise of General Franco, and he was still keen on parroting these phrases years later, presuming this was what the colonists wanted. Thinking they were dealing with an ultra-loyal buffoon, the Spanish viewed him as an easily manipulated figure who might prove useful following independence. However, the Spanish had mistaken Macías’s caveman-like utterances in Spanish for lack of eloquence in his native Fang. In 1967, they set up a TV transmitter and handed out free sets to natives so that they could see the candidates to be their future president speak. One of them was Macías. A shameless psychopath with no sense of self-restraint, Macías proved a natural on-screen talent, giving hypnotic speeches in Fang to an awed populace and winning the election of 1968 by some margin. Even though he had openly praised Adolf Hitler as being “the saviour of Africa”, the people of the newly renamed Equatorial Guinea had little inkling that their new-fangled democratically elected leader was to take after the Führer in more ways than a shared talent for soaring oratory. Only the residents of Mongomo, who knew all too well what Macías was like, failed to lend him their vote.
The symbol used by Macías on voting-slips was that of a tiger, an animal not known in West Africa. However, ‘ El Tigre’ was the Spanish term for the black panthers or leopards, which lived locally, and it was well known amongst the Fang that powerful witchdoctors like Macías could transform themselves into such beasts at night. Apart from a few uncooperative cabinet ministers whom he had shot or thrown out of windows, the first victims of The Panther’s claws were the unsuspecting Spanish and Portuguese colonists who had thought their position in society secure. Unleashing his street-thugs to attack their homes and businesses, Macías forced Spain to send out eight destroyers to evacuate some 7,000 terrified colonialists. Once the ships sailed away, Equatorial Guinea was truly free of the white man’s scrutiny. Not wanting to publicise the fact that democratic elections were now allowed in Spain’s former colony but not in Spain itself, Franco had placed a ban on all reporting from the place domestically. This, combined with few Western journalists based in Africa being able to speak Spanish, meant there was a near-total global media blackout on Equatorial Guinea, giving Macías the ideal
opportunity to do anything he liked. One priority was taking revenge upon the hated education system. In the most extreme reaction to exam failure on record, Macías had all books in the country burned, closed down all libraries, archives, newspapers and printing-presses, executed anyone wearing glasses, and banned the very use of the word ‘intellectual’. Shutting every private school, he modified the curriculum in state-run ones so that children were made to waste their days repeatedly chanting teacher-led slogans thanking Papa Macías for being the father of the country, as he had once been made to thank General Franco. Studying had never done him any good, so Macías allegedly developed a new and more efficient means of developing his mind instead – eating the brains of his most intellectually gifted victims, hoping thereby to absorb their knowledge and live up to his title of ‘Grand Master of Science, Education and Culture’.
The mainland Río Muni area of the country was once known as the ‘Cannibal Coast’, and it was a central belief of traditional Fang society that eating part of your defeated enemies would enable you to take on their powers. It was also a central tenet of the local Bwiti witchdoctor cult to sit around all night taking drugs and talking to the dead, which helps account for Macías’s preferred nocturnal mode of governance. Moving back to the mainland, far away from the island sector capital of Malabo, Macías built a palace and stuffed it full of human skulls so he could be close to the dead. Here, high on marijuana and hallucinogens, he would have late-night dinner-places set at his table, and order his victims to return from ‘The Village of the Dead’ so he could berate them for their failings – a weird, politicised development of the traditional Bwiti practice of communal consumption of hallucinogenic
Iboga- leaves, in order to commune with the village ancestors. Coming to believe he had supernatural powers, Macías eventually banned all religious practices in the country, including Bwiti, on the grounds that he himself was now God.
Skulls were not the only thing Macías had stored away in his palace. When he left Malabo, he murdered the Governor of the Central Bank and took the contents of the Treasury away with him to keep safely under his bed, or in suitcases stashed around his room. As God, Macías saw no reason to draw distinction between the national Treasury and his own piggybank, and refused to set any national budgets or keep any proper accounts, with the end result that the entire economy simply collapsed, and people had to forage for fruit to survive. Electricity, education, healthcare, transport, sanitation, telecoms – all ceased to function. Only the deadly national security apparatus still worked, and even secret policemen might have to visit Macías personally to get their back pay, retrieved from under God’s mattress.
To raise funds, in 1976 Macías hit upon the scheme of forcing the entire adult population to work as unpaid slaves in mines and put some of his fortune in banks, decreeing that he alone should be given a special high interest-rate of 8 per cent. With money still running short, ‘Mad Uncle Macías’, as he became known, began kidnapping random foreign visitors and demanding large sums in ransom from their governments. When, in 1976, a Soviet plane crashed into a rocky peak near Malabo, he refused to release the corpses back to Russia until the Kremlin agreed to pay him $5 million in compensation for “the damage caused to my mountain”. Things came to a head when, in 1979, Macías killed several family members who had gone to him asking to be paid, which prompted his feared nephew, Lt-Col Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the national-security chief, to institute a coup before his own skull ended up in Macías’s ever-growing collection. Put on trial, Macías was handed 101 separate death sentences – but there was a problem. Macías threatened to haunt his executioners in the form of a panther, so a special unit of Moroccans was brought in to do the deed; as good Muslims, they had no belief in such nonsense, so were unafraid to shoot him. Obiang then took over, keeping the reins of supreme power very much within the family. He is still the President of Equatorial Guinea today. 1
EAT MY BALLS!
Obiang has proved to be a more enlightened ruler than his uncle, and under his benign gaze living standards in Equatorial Guinea have happily risen from the unbearable to the merely appalling. Following the discovery of large oil-deposits in 1991, the country has grown ever richer year by year, with some 360,000 barrels of the black stuff now being produced per day, generating billions. Equatoguineans should, therefore, be rich. However, Obiang is alleged to have kept much of the Treasury’s newly generated oil wealth for himself, although probably not under his bed as his uncle did. Under Obiang, the random killings and senseless mass-murders have ended for good, to be replaced with the altogether more rational human rights abuse only of those persons thought to deserve it. With almost 40 years of uninterrupted rule behind him, Obiang stands as the longest-serving non-royal head of state in the world, winning election after election by highly impressive, 90 per centplus margins – in some voting-areas, he has even achieved as much as 103 per cent of the vote. This is only right, seeing that in 2003 the national state radio (there are still no newspapers) broadcast the reassuring news that not only was President Obiang “in permanent contact with the Almighty”, he was in some sense “the country’s God”, having “all power over men and things”. For example, explained the broadcast, “He can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to Hell, because it is God Himself… who gives him this strength.”
Nonetheless, the association with his deposed elder relative has stuck, and there are plenty who have sought to tar Obiang with the same brush of sorcery and insanity. Most notable was the opposition leader Severo Moto, who in 2004 memorably
claimed that he was unable to return from political exile abroad to his homeland, as President Obiang wanted to “eat my testicles”. Calling the autocrat both “a demon” and “an authentic cannibal”, Mr Moto claims that his ball-biting arch-enemy “systematically eats his political rivals”, concentrating upon taste-testing their testes to increase his sexual prowess. “He has just devoured a police-commissioner,” Moto went on to claim during a radio interview. “I say ‘devoured’, because this commissioner was buried without his testicles and brain.” Obiang himself has denied the charges, and seeing that they emanate from a political rival, they may well be simply an attempt to paint him as a carbon copy of his hated, brain-munching uncle to sow dissent. Such claims have certainly caused embarrassment for Obiang’s biggest modern-day allies, the USA. America’s rulers have proven themselves consistently able to overlook a little light cannibalism between friends, with ‘The Chief’, as he likes to be known, being granted a lengthy and fawning US State Visit in 2006 as part of a post-9/11 drive to reduce US dependence on Arab oil. This was quite a contrast to the damaging events of 1993, when the then-US Ambassador, John E Bennett, was caught engaging in ‘witchcraft’ (re: tending British war-graves) in a cemetery upon the day of Equatorial Guinea’s latest rigged election. It was publicly announced that Bennett was hoping to make use of “traditional medicine [i.e. magic] given to him by electionboycotting opposition parties in order that the vote would turn out badly” for The Chief. The following year Bennett departed, giving a valedictory speech in which he openly named Obiang’s chief torturers of the day, leading to a near-total breakdown in relations between the two countries. Nowadays, however, oil’s well that ends well, with certain interested transatlantic parties,
petro-dollars firmly in view, even insisting that Obiang is a genuine force for good in his nation, whether he swallows people’s balls or not – the realpolitik equivalent of Never Mind the Bollocks. 2
President Obiang is currently providing kind shelter to one of our former Strange Statesmen, the now-deposed AIDS-curing President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia (see
FT353:48-51). Surely an imagined account of their time spent together has all the makings of a great TV sitcom? Especially if Obiang tries to eat him…
LEFT: Francisco Macías Nguema, the first President of Equatorial Guinea, photographed circa 1970.
LEFT: Macías photographed at Malabo airport, with his uniformed nephew Teodoro Obiang visible at the far right. BELOW: Macías’s presidential palace at Malabo; he later relocated to a new one, filled with skulls, further inland.
ABOVE: A political meeting in Equatorial Guinea prior to the country’s first election since gaining independence from Spain in 1968, in which Macías was first propelled to power.
ABOVE LEFT: The deposed President Macías is flanked by Guinean troops on 10 April 1979 during his trial in Malabo. He was sentenced to death and executed hours later. ABOVE RIGHT: Equatorial Guinea’s current President, Teodoro Obiang Nguemathe, who has been accused – like his late uncle – of eating his political rivals.