From 2000 to 2006 the author of this article served in three countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea. Except for Sao Tome and Principe, they obtain their revenue from large oil and gas reserves. Gabon has been in this category for decades, whereas the discoveries in Equatorial Guinea (EG) were made in the mid-90s. When I served these countries as UNICEF's Representative, I learned the hard way that the interests of the USA and its transnational enterprises carry more weight than the combined values of all other UN member countries.
When the President of Equatorial Guinea in November 2004 signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with UNICEF, he was confident that this partnership would contribute to improving the image of his country. The MoU had the objective to develop the capacity for child development throughout the country. It was to be financed exclusively by his government. He seemed totally unprepared for another competing project launched seven months later, prepared by Business for Social Responsibility at the request of US State Department (SD). The SD initiative serves as a ‘good’ example of a project imposed upon a sovereign country against its will. When the president asked for me, he unknowingly triggered a process that in the end led to my dismissal. Instead of heading a project for the betterment of living conditions of children and their families in Equatorial Guinea, the President complied with the State Department’s wish to create a more favorable context for Exxon Mobil’s continued exploitation of oil and gas resources in Equatorial Guinea (EG). The events which will be presented here did not only create unpleasant turbulence in my professional and personal life but more importantly, it infringed on the autonomy of a sovereign country.
‘Your name went all the way to the top of the White House’
This was how the Chargée d’Affaires of the US greeted me sometime during the second half of 2005 a couple of months after a letter carrying my signature, addressed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been intercepted. The letter arrived in Washington and not in Malabo, the capital of GE. Former Secretary of Agriculture, Ann Veneman, had been designated to the post of Executive Director of UNICEF in early 2005 at the recommendation of the US President G.W. Bush. Ann Veneman was one of three hawks strategically placed at the head of offices deemed critical to US global interests. Ann Veneman was anxious to prove to her former boss that she merited the trust he had shown her. When Bush in June 2005 gave her a call asking her to get the house in EG in order, she proved herself a willing instrument. Under normal circumstances, an Executive Director of a UN organization would have requested her staff to get more information about the case, especially because she was still new to UNICEF. She did not know Central Africa, nor did she know that UNICEF had just received the Order of the Equatorial Star – an order of merit – presented by the President of Gabon for the work executed under my leadership in the area of the Gulf of Guinea.
I was puzzled and felt humiliated, when the organization for which I had spent the better part of my professional career, decided to give me “the golden handshake”1 with no reasons given. I agreed not to challenge the executive decision in return for a reasonable settlement. This made me even more suspicious as to what were the real motives for this decision. Therefore I requested the UN Ombudsman to investigate with a view to discover any possible professional mistakes and errors on my part. I learned that the Ombudsman, Mr. Lee, after a review of audit reports and other relevant documentations had found no professional reasons for my dismissal. Mr. Lee was of the opinion that only political reasons could have motivated such a decision. I was determined to undertake my own investigation based on detailed ‘notes for the record’ taken at the time when these events took place (2004 – 2006). Because I had sworn not to dispute my dismissal, I have waited until now to go public with my findings.
Keeping an eye on the world
Since the dawn of UNICEF in 1946, it has been a favorite of the USA. Its Executive Secretary has always been an American national. UNICEF’s program preparation procedures are highly respected and sought after for their professionally prepared analyses of human and financial resources. Such information is considered very valuable to the USA when assessing a country’s potential value for investments by US enterprises. Therefore situation reports prepared by UNICEF, serve as important inputs to country reports, prepared by SD, the CIA and other departments of Home Security, which employs more than 240.000 persons. It analyzes data collected from thousands of sources with a view of preparing as comprehensive a picture as possible of potential threats to US National Security, and also to obtain valid information regarding the feasibility of investments by Transnational Corporations. Home Security applies all means possible: Informers, wiretapping, hacking of computers and interception into sovereign countries' postal services. This is exactly what happened in May 2005, when the US President was informed about confidential matters from the writer of this article addressed to the minister of foreign affairs of EG, Pastor Micha Ondo Bile.
The importance of intercepted letter
It was not until March 2006, that it was confirmed to me by the US Chargée d’Affaire in Malabo, Mrs. Sarah Morrison, that my letter to the minister had arrived in the Oval Office of the White House. It has always been my habit to give feedback from an audience with a minister with a resume of key points shared at the meeting. On the same date that I had been invited to meet with Mr. Ondo Bile, I also met with the vice-prime minister and the minister to the president’s office. They were anxious to meet with me because SD had let it be known that the US wanted to put in place a Social Development Fund which was to finance the implementation of activities in the social sectors. The SD project was presented to the government seven months after the President had committed himself and his government to work with UNICEF on a project with a very different organizational structure and implementation strategies.
The three ministers – speaking with one voice - were committed to the partnership with UNICEF, especially because it would keep the government in the driver’s seat assisted by an international staff with no other interests in the country. They were convinced that it would be better for the image of the country to work with an international organization, rather than a bilateral one. When the subject of the SD in initiated Social Development Fund (SDF), was brought up by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, he expressed in unequivocal terms his concern. The SD sponsored project would, in his view, primarily be promoting public relations for the oil companies, by enabling them to be associated with social development activities implemented by their contributions to SDF. There was also concern about UNICEF's participation in the SD project if it was merely an invention to serve the interests of oil companies. It would conflict with UNICEF’s mission and ethical standards if UNICEF on one hand turned down a partnership with a company because it did not meet certain ethical norms, but then turned around and were willing to work with the same company under the umbrella of another project initiated by the US State Department. This contention was reflected in the intercepted letter.
Guinea Equatorial: “Kuwait of Central Africa”
Nobody had paid much attention to the countries in the Gulf of Guinea and hardly at all to EG. Narratives from the country were always very negative. The international media reported mostly about a ‘dictatorial’ president, who was corrupt and stole from the profits of oil revenues to benefit himself and his family. Moreover, it was reported that torture of opposition members was practiced in the prisons. Foreign observers had rarely positive observations about the country. In that sense, Guinea Equatorial share a common fate with most other African countries, which usually meet with little empathy and understanding from western observers, who usually ignore that industrialized and so-called democratic countries of the West have evolved through many phases before arriving at the present-day status with well functioning administrative systems. When some of Africa’s largest oil-and-gas reserves were discovered in GE, it became known as “Kuwait of Central Africa”. G.W. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, had both come to the White House with strong personal involvement in the oil sector. The Americans did not want to put all of their eggs in the Saudi basket. After-all, the Middle East had given the Americans many surprises and worries. Access to African oil was a hot topic in Neo-conservative circles, and human rights violations that troubled the Clinton administration and made him cut relations with Equatorial Guinea didn't trouble the Bush administration. In 2003 the USA opened an office in Malabo and in 2006 Condoleezza Rice called Obiang “a good friend” and the American embassy was reopened.
President Obiang’s dream
As wealth from the oil resources began to flow, the uneasiness of the president grew. Soon his country was the third-largest oil producer in Africa after Nigeria and Angola. He felt that his country deserved more respect at least from the country which benefited most from its oil. He was convinced that a partnership with a respectable institution like UNICEF would help to change an otherwise negative image abroad as well as at home. During my many encounters with President Obiang Nguema, it never occurred to me that he was a person who was responsible for terrible deeds. During annual independence celebrations, the day usually began with church service in the cathedral, where the president and his wife were the first ones to receive communion. Like all African heads of state, he was eager to create a more positive image of his country. I had conversations with President Obiang Nguema on how the resources from oil best could be brought to benefit his country. The landscape of GE was already undergoing rapid transformations. The entire countryside resembled a construction site. Families in Gabon living near the border often crossed over to EG, because there they would have a better supply of medicines. Now he wanted to address social development to the well-being of the ordinary family. Eventually, he addressed Carol Belami, UNICEF’s Executive Director, with a very personal letter indicating his willingness to finance UNICEF’s entire country program and beyond. Following her reply, UNICEF’s country office developed the project agreed upon in the MoU. The activities to be initiated should aim at the development of a model village in each province of the country to be completed within a period of two years. Based on the experiences in these model villages, the modalities and their results would be replicated to the entire countries over the next ten years by national staff.
The MoU signed between UNICEF and the government of Equatorial Guinea was the first of its kind in any sub-Saharan country. In fact, the implementation of MoU would have brought Equatorial Guinea into the ranks of some Middle Eastern countries as far as the modalities of a partnership with a UN agency was concerned.
Backlash from the Briggs Bank scandal
The plans for a large project based on the Child Rights Convention executed in partnership with UNICEF did not help much to improve the image of President Obiang Nguema and his country in the USA. An investigation by a subcommittee of the Senate took all of the attention. It showed beyond any doubt that Exxon Mobil had undertaken dubious transfers to bank accounts held in the name of the president and some individuals close to the president The New York Times wrote: “Exxon Mobil entered into a profit-sharing arrangement with Mr. Obiang's government in order to secure drilling rights there”2. This contributed to painting a disgraceful portrayal of the said oil company as well as of the USA in mainstream media in the US. Given the fragile structure of the administration of EG, the President had gone public already in 2003 declaring that he felt compelled to take full control of the national treasury in order to prevent civil servants from being tempted to engage in corrupt practices. Abroad this was interpreted as a way for the president to abuse public funds. However, the title of an account and the signatures required to withdraw from that account do not by themselves prove abuse of public resources. Although it was beyond the scope of the senate investigation to prove that President Obiang Nguema had abused funds from the accounts held at Briggs Bank in Washington, it did not abstain the report writers and the media from applying a vocabulary with very negative connotations to describe the President.
Exxon Mobil and corporate social responsibility
The Senate Report mirrored poorly on Exxon Mobil, which already held an extremely poor image in the public eye. In 1989 it caused the largest oil spill ever seen in the history of mankind outside the coast of Alaska. It is also well known that Exxon Mobil financed researchers willing to deny climate warming. In other words, Exxon Mobil was associated with the worst possible values of capitalism, disregarding any considerations to the social responsibilities of its activities. It was always ready to do anything as long time as it would increase its profit.
As the largest multinational company in the USA, Exxon Mobil’s image resonates automatically in the entire country. The State Department had therefore a natural interest in helping Exxon Mobil to improve its image, as much as the USA wanted easy access to the oil and gas resources of EG. When the public learned3 that UNICEF and the Government had entered an agreement, Exxon Mobil and SD could not quickly enough get together to develop a plan, which would promote a more benevolent picture of Exxon Mobil.
SD and Exxon Mobil sensed that UNICEF was getting in their way. Mr. Seale, the President of EXXON Mobil in Malabo was daily in contact with his headquarters in Houston, from where Exxon Mobil’s CEO, Raymond Lee, kept a close eye on the oil fields in the Gulf of Guinea. He personally took note of all information received from Mr. Seale. From the intercepted UNICEF letter to the government, they learned about the negative attitudes held among high-level officials of the government towards the oil companies. Raymond Lee and Mr. Seale agreed that things would not get better before the UNICEF Representative got out of the way. During one of his overseas trips with his old friend Dick Cheney4, the Vice President of the USA, Raymond Lee took the opportunity to brief him on the situation in Equatorial Guinea.
Raymond Lee and Dick Cheney
Raymond Lee is known as the initiator of a denial industry concerning climate change. Lee, who today is in his early 80s has shown that money and wealth buy influence. After Exxon Mobil continued on the board of JP Morgan Chase from where he only resigned in 2020, following sustained pressure on the bank from climate activists and investors. For many years he was a member of the influential Foreign Council. According to Greenpeace Exxon Mobil contributed $ 1.376 to the Republican Party election campaign when G.W. Bush was the presidential nominee in the year 2000. He also at one time served as Vice-president of one of the most conservative Think Tanks, the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Raymond Lee valued money and profit more than anything else in this world. When he retired from Exxon Mobil on December 31, 2005, he gave himself a retirement package of US $ 141.000 a day or $ 6000 per hour, calculated by ABC News.
Raymond Lee had been a close friend with the US vice president for decades. After all, Cheney had close links to the oil industry from his time as head of Halliburton5. During one of the international trips they undertook together, Raymond Lee confided to Cheney about the difficulties they had run into in EG and as well at home with Riggs Bank6.
The oil and gas reserves in EG had given the US a chance to get out of the strong dependence on the oil wells in the Middle East, characterized by an increasingly unpredictable political environment. It was therefore important that Exxon Mobil together with other American oil companies could control the situation in the Gulf of Guinea. To them, the UNICEF Representative was like a wild and unpredictable card. They agreed upon a strategy that would boost the image of Exxon Mobil, while at the same time promoting US interests in general.
Regional Director: "You do not oppose the Americans"
The strategy developed in the skies in Air Force Two had the objective to strengthen the influence of the USA in Equatorial Guinea in a manner that would help to create a new image of the oil companies and especially of Exxon Mobil. It was important that corporate America came to be seen as an enterprise which aimed at serving the social welfare of people. One of the first steps was to slow down and at best eliminate the MoU between UNICEF and the government. To achieve this UNICEF's country representative had to go thus ensuring that the government did not receive advice conflicting with US interests.
The most efficient way to get UNICEF’s Representative out of the way was to have President George W. Bush call his former Secretary of Agriculture, Ann Veneman. As a former member of Bush’s National Energy Policy Development Group, she knew well the key players in the oil business. Following his call, I learned from the director of HR that my name had been taken off the senior staff rotation list. The next steps of the Lee/Cheney strategy were to disseminate any kind of (mis-)information, including a smear campaign, which would create confusion as to the reason for my dismissal.
The presidential call to UNICEF's Exdir was followed up by pressure on UNICEF in New York by institutions important to it, such as its fundraising wing in the USA and SD. The intention was to eliminate any possible support to the Representative. Hardly had the strategy been adopted before a number of oil companies operating in the Gulf of Guinea communicated to the US National Committee for UNICEF complaining about the behavior of UNICEF’s country representative. The committee worried that negative comments about senior UNICEF staff would damage future partnership with the corporate world.
Simultaneously (June 2005), SD summoned UNICEF to a meeting at the US Mission to the UN to give an account for its operations in Equatorial Guinea. At this meeting attended by two of my colleagues from the Africa Desk, Special Counsel to the Assistant Secretary in SD, Mr. Christoffer Camponovo, accompanied by an Advisor from the permanent mission of the USA to UN showed UNICEF HQ staff the now infamous letter intercepted by agents working for the Americans in Malabo. According to briefing notes from the African Desk in UNICEF, the main concern of SD was the letter from the present author. They read the letter aloud and stressed that this was proof of my advice to the government not to enter any partnership with oil companies on any social development project. In fact, the letter made reference to the discussion during the meeting regarding the difficulties UNICEF would have at participating in the management of oil funds that had not received prior clearance by the relevant project clearing committee in HQ. Mr. Camponovo was a key speaker at a conference in the autumn of 2005 on EG with the theme ‘Breaking the Resource Curse?’ He said that “Given the nation’s small population, its substantial oil and gas reserves and its growing strategic importance to the United States, the State Department saw an opportunity to build upon our relationship to encourage improvement on a range of issues from social development to human rights to security”7 The Social Development Fund Project proposed by SD thus fits naturally into the national security strategy of the USA. When it comes to the national interest of the USA, often defined by politicians who have been recruited directly from the corporate sector, the welfare of children and their families do not count at all.
Having mobilized UNICEF's HQ in New York, the next step was to mobilize UNICEF's Regional Director, who in turn was supposed to put added pressure on the country representative in EG. The regional director, an Italian national, Dr. Gianni Murzi – supervising more than 20 countries in West-and Central Africa - called me to seek clarification about the information received from his boss in New York. When I reminded him that I worked under a standing instruction which directed heads of offices, when faced with two conflicting activities, always to ask which one better serve the interest of the child. Did this also apply in this case, I asked. His reply was that “You do not oppose the Americans”.
The most important part of the armory to be applied to reach the objective of creating a favorable environment for the continued exploitation of the oil-and-gas reserves was to be the development of a ‘Social Development Fund’, which would serve as a passable channel through which Exxon Mobil and SD could exert their influence. The State Department was charged with identifying a company to execute project preparation. Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) was chosen.
Who are the clients of Business for Social Responsibility?
BSR began as a small organization with a mission to assist companies to create a socially accepted public image, which would convince the public that they were doing work for the welfare of the community. Over the next ten years, this company grew into a multi-national corporation with member organizations from more than 250 transnational corporations – all of which were anxious to ensure that the public associated their brand with high social and globally accepted values. BSR’s mission is “to work with business to create a just and sustainable world”. It enjoys the attention of US Presidents. At its first-ever annual meeting in 1993 the US president, Bill Clinton was the guest speaker. BSR had the right profile and approach to counteract the UNICEF initiative in favor of one which would give Exxon Mobil and US interests a high social profile. The final report, Social Development Fund, appeared in May 2005, seven months after the signing of ‘protocollo’ between UNICEF and the Presidency of EG. Although the BSR proposal was prepared after the signing of the MoU with UNICEF and although the latter had received plenty of publicity, BSR makes no reference to UNICEF’s agreement with the government. Normally, a proposal of this kind, pretending to follow academic norms, would have included a review on any other parallel social sector program, if for no other reason to highlight shortcomings and to show why this proposal will do a better job.
According to UNICEF’s notes from the meeting at the US Mission in New York, Mr. Camponovo made poker-faced efforts to convince UNICEF that the project prepared by BSR had nothing to do with oil and gas companies and neither with the strategic interests of the USA in EG. However, the report of the ‘Social Development Fund’ project does mention the possibility that the funds could be “supplemented by extra-budgetary resources “, and “external support will be built into the operation of both the Fund itself and of individual projects” In addition, there will be 2-3 high-profile external persons as members of the Board, which should be responsible for “Soliciting independent input from stakeholders of Equatorial Guinea on social issues, as appropriate.” The project opened up the possibility of a bi-lateral External Technical Advisor to the Social Fund Secretariat, who should have access to all involved ministries. Fully aware of the resistance in EG to the SD proposal and conscious that it had been prepared and put forward to the government in a grotesque way, attempts were made to legitimize it by offering the outgoing Executive Director of UNICEF, Carol Bellamy, a post as Vice-president in BSR with special responsibility for activities in EG. She confided with me that she had turned the offer down when she learned that the President was against the SD initiative.
Solidarity: a foreign word among UNICEF staff
The events accounted for in this article are purely political, and not motivated by any desire to improve the living conditions of the children of Equatorial Guinea. In retrospect, it is remarkable that at no time did anybody in UNICEF come to my support. Neither did anyone make any attempt to understand the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of a senior staff member employed on a permanent contract – a staff member who throughout his career had acted in accordance with the UN Charter. Assuming that UNICEF staff are guided by higher values, one must ask how it is possible that no colleagues at all made any attempt to side with me or at least raising questions when observing a colleague being sacrificed for the sake of securing the interests of the USA.
It is important to know that loyalty towards the system is assured through an annual evaluation of every individual staff by his/her superior. If you step out of line, you risk a negative evaluation, which is likely to have repercussions for your future career movement.
Dedication to world peace and establishment of an environment conducive to development often comes in the second position or not at all. Job security with numerous fringe benefits receives high priority when applying for a UN job. Furthermore, in recognition of having no possibilities of addressing the root causes to obstacles to peace and development, most staff of the United Nations, at all levels seem today more interested in staying on for the sake of job security and remunerations in form of post adjustment, pension rights, education grants and paid home leave. At the individual level, it is too risky to voice any disagreement with an institution that for many employees is perceived simply as serving the interests of those who have, rather than serving those who have nothing. Why help a colleague and then run the risk of losing all the perks?
Raymond Lee has demonstrated to the world that financial power can buy political influence to the detriment of the welfare of the international community, by bringing to halt or slow down effectively the work of the international institutions, such as the project the president of Equatorial Guinea had planned in partnership with UNICEF. The key lesson to those who wish to stay in a well-paid UN post with numerous fringe benefits is to remember the words of my regional director, Dr. Murzi: You do not oppose the Americans!
In 2007 the prestigious newsletter La Lettre du Continent8 could inform its exclusive group of readers that Exxon Mobil with the support of President G.W. Bush was ready to support the establishment of a very politically oriented social fond in Equatorial Guinea. The article could also inform its readers that G.W. Bush had invited the President of Equatorial Guinea, Theodore Obiang Nguema to Washington to ‘convince’ him of the advantages of a partnership with the State Department on the American project.
1 Euphemism for dismissal of a person, while paying compensation.
2 New York Times, April 11, 2004, A Washington Bank in a global mess, buy Timothy O’Brien. On July 19, The New York Times wrote: A number of oil companies, especially Exxon Mobil, Amerada Hess and Marathon Oi, had numerous outside business ventures and other financial relationships with Mr. Obiand and his government, in addition to the companies’ oil.
3 Radio France International (RFI) and AFP were the first ones to launch the news about the MoU agreed upon by UNICEF and the Government of Equatorial Guinea.
4 Private Empire, Exxon Mobil and American Power by Steve Coll. Penguin Press, 2013.
5 Halliburton is working closely with oil companies in the Gulf of Guinea ensuring maintenance and deliveries of essentials to ensure uninterrupted functioning.
6 Money Laundering and Foreign Corruption: Enforcement and Effectiveness of the Patriot Act. A case study involving Riggs Bank. Report prepared by the minority staff of the permanent subcommittee on investigations, released in conjunction with the permanent subcommittee on investigations’ hearing on July 15. 2004.
7 Advancing social development in Equatorial Guinea, by Christopher Camponovo, in Leading Perspectives, Fall 2005, published by Business for Social Responsibility.
8 La Lettre du Continent. Les Hommes de Pouvoir et leur Reseaux. Enquête: Affaire Humanitaire à Malabo. L’UNICEF et les ‘bonnes aeuvre’ d’Exxon’, Number 510, January 25. 2007.