Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Equatorial Guinea
From The Columbia Encyclopedia

(gĭn'ē), officially Republic of Equatorial Guinea, republic (2015 est. pop. 741,000), 10,830 sq mi (28,051 sq km), W central Africa. It includes the islands of Bioko (formerly Fernando Po), Annobón, Corisco, Elobey Grande, and Elobey Chico in the Gulf of Guinea, and Río Muni on the African mainland. Río Muni, which includes about 93% of the nation's land area and 75% to 80% of its population, is bordered by Cameroon in the north, by Gabon in the east and south, and by the Gulf of Guinea in the west. Malabo, situated on Bioko, is the capital and largest city, but a new capital, Oyala, is under construction on the mainland. In addition to Malabo, other important cities include Luba (also on Bioko) and Bata and Ebebiyín (in Río Muni).

Land and People

Río Muni, located just north of the equator, is made up of lowland along the coast, which gradually rises in the interior to c.3,600 ft (1,100 m). Río Muni includes three major rivers—the Campo, which forms part of the northern boundary; the Benito, located in the center; and the Muni, which forms part of the southern boundary. There are forests of okume, mahogany, and walnut along the coast and the rivers. Bioko is made up of three extinct volcanoes, the loftiest of which is c.9,870 ft (3,010 m) high. The island has abundant fertile volcanic soil. Corisco and the Elobey islands are located near the the Muni estuary.

Most of the people in Equatorial Guinea belong to the Bantu ethnolinguistic group. The main ethnic group in Río Muni, where most of the population lives, is the Fang. The population of Bioko is primarily made up of the Bubi (the oldest of the modern-day inhabitants), descendants of slaves from W Africa liberated by the British in the 19th cent., and Nigerians and Fangs who migrated there in the 20th cent. Spanish and French are the official languages, but Fang, Bubi, and other indigenous languages are widely spoken. The population is nominally Christian and predominantly Roman Catholic; some indigenous religions are practiced.


Subsistence farming is the predominant occupation in Equatorial Guinea, although only 5% of the land is arable. Prior to independence, the money economy was based on the production of cocoa (mostly on Bioko) and coffee and timber (in Río Muni). Following severe deterioration of the rural economy, the government has made efforts to increase production of these products to preindependence levels. Other agricultural products include rice, yams, cassava, bananas, and palm oil. Livestock are raised and there is a fishing industry. There is food processing, sawmilling, and the manufacture of basic consumer items. The discovery and exploitation of large offshore oil and natural gas deposits increased economic growth beginning in the late 1990s, but the oil and gas revenue, largely lost to government corruption, has not significantly improved the standard of living in the generally improverished nation. The country also has unexploited deposits of titanium, iron ore, manganese, uranium, and gold. Both Río Muni and Bioko have substantial road networks; there are no railroads. Malabo is the main port.

The value of Equatorial Guinea's exports is considerably higher than the cost of its imports. The United States is the country's largest trading partner, followed by China, Spain, Italy, and France. The main exports are petroleum, methanol, timber, and cocoa; the chief imports are petroleum equpment and other machinery, foodstuffs, and beverages. Equatorial Guinea continues to depend heavily on foreign investment.


Equatorial Guinea is governed under the constitution of 1991 as amended. The president, who is head of state, is popularly elected for a seven-year term; a two-term limit was adopted in 2011. The government is headed by a prime minister, who is appointed by the president. The bicameral legislature consists of the 100-seat House of People's Representatives, whose members are elected to serve five-year terms. The Senate (first elected in 2013) has 70 members, 55 of whom are elected; the rest are appointed by the president. Members of the legislature are elected from multimember constituencies on a proportional basis. The legislature has little power, as the constitution vests most authority in the president. Administratively, the country is divided into seven provinces.

Before Independence

Bioko was claimed by (and until 1972 named after) Fernão do Po, a Portuguese navigator, in 1472, and Annobón was also claimed. During the 17th cent. the mainland's indigenous pygmy peoples were displaced by other groups, principally the Fang, who now inhabit the area. In 1778, Portugal ceded the islands, and also the commercial rights to a part of the African coast that included present-day Río Muni, to the Spanish. Hoping to export Africans as slaves to their American possessions, the Spanish sent settlers to the islands, but they died of yellow fever, and by 1781 the region was abandoned by the Europeans.

From 1827 to 1843 the British leased bases at Malabo (then called Port Clarence) and San Carlos from Spain for use by their antislavery patrols, and some freed slaves were settled on Bioko (then called Fernando Po). In 1844 the Spanish reacquired Bioko and began to occupy it. In 1879, a Cuban penal settlement was established there, and some of the convicts remained on the island after being released from prison. The general region of Río Muni was awarded to Spain at the Conference of Berlin in 1885, and its boundaries were defined precisely in a treaty with France in 1900. The islands and Río Muni were grouped together as the colony of Spanish Guinea.

Under the Spanish, economic development was largely confined to Bioko, although some measures were taken in Río Muni beginning in the 1940s. By 1960, about 6,000 Europeans (mostly Spanish) were living in the colony, and they controlled the production of cocoa and timber. In 1959 the colony was reorganized into two overseas provinces of Spain, each under a governor. In a further move to assimilate the region to Spain, three Hispano-Guineans were elected to the Spanish Cortes in 1960. However, nationalists were not satisfied with assimilation and demanded independence.

Independence and Beyond

In 1963, Spain granted the country (renamed Equatorial Guinea) a limited amount of autonomy, and on Oct. 12, 1968, it received complete independence. The first president was Francisco Macías Nguema, a Fang from Río Muni. In 1969, there were violent anti-European demonstrations in Río Muni and most Europeans left the country, thus for a time severely dislocating the economy. In 1970 all political parties were merged into the United National party (PUN), headed by Macías Nguema, who in 1972 was appointed president for life. In 1973 a new constitution was adopted that abolished the nation's two semiautonomous provinces and created a unitary state.

Macías Nguema led a dictatorship characterized by campaigns against intellectuals and all those alleged to be plotting the overthrow of the regime; many were imprisoned, killed, or driven into exile. Nigerian migrant workers demanding higher wages were brutally suppressed, straining relations between Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea. Relations with Cameroon and Gabon were also strained as refugees fled to those countries. Equatorial Guinea severed its diplomatic ties with Spain in 1977. Spanish plantation owners shut down their operations, foreign investment declined, and the nation suffered a severe drop in population, with some 25,000 to 80,000 of the country's inhabitants estimated to have been killed by the government.

In 1979 the military staged a coup, executing Macías Nguema and installing his nephew, Lt. Col. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, as head of the military and head of state. Obiang Nguema Mbasogo lifted restrictions on the Roman Catholic Church, freed political prisoners, encouraged refugees to return, and restored diplomatic ties with Western nations. Spain and France began to reinvest, and the European Community helped rehabilitate the road system. These efforts met with limited success.

In 1982 a new constitution was approved that called for a more democratic political structure, and a decade later legislation was passed providing for a multiparty democracy. However, by 1993, when legislative elections were held, only one party, Obiang Nguema Mbasogo's Democratic Party for Equatorial Guinea (PDGE), held significant power, and the regime was widely denounced for its continued repression of opposition groups. In the 1996 multiparty presidential elections, which were boycotted by major opposition parties, the president won a landslide victory. In the late 1990s, over 100,000 citizens lived in exile abroad, and there was wide dissatisfaction with the slow pace of reform.

Obiang Nguema Mbasogo was reelected unopposed in 2002 after opposition candidates, expecting fraud, withdrew. In Mar., 2004, the government foiled an apparent coup attempt involving mainly South African mercenaries. British and South African mercenaries convicted (2004, 2008) of involvement in the attempt were pardoned in 2009. The national legislative elections two months later occurred in a climate of intimidation that assured a near total victory for the PDGE and its allies; a similar outcome resulted in the 2008, 2013, and 2017 elections.

When police blamed Cameroonians for armed robberies in late 2007, hundreds of Cameroonians faced harassment in Equatorial Guinea; Equatoguineans in Cameroon were similarly harassed in revenge. There have been attacks against banks and other targets in Equatorial Guinea by gangs operating out of Nigeria's Niger delta region, most notably a Feb., 2009, assault against the presidential palace in Malabo. Obiang Nguema Mbasogo was overwhelmingly reelected again in Nov., 2009, and Apr., 2016; the results were criticized by the opposition and international human-rights organizations, who called the elections unfair and not credible. An attempted coup against the government by mercenaries was reportedly foiled in Dec., 2017. Corruption involving the president, his family (most notably his son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, a vice president of the country, who was convicted in absentia in France in 2017 of embezzling), and government officials is a significant problem.

  • See Liniger-Goumaz, M. , Historical Dictionary of Equatorial Guinea (1988);.
  • Sundiata, I. K. , Equatorial Guinea: Colonialism, State Terror, and the Search for Stability (1990);.
  • Fegley, R. , Equatorial Guinea (1991).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

Related Articles

Full text Article Equatorial Guinea
Philip's Encyclopedia

The Republic of Equatorial Guinea is located in W central Africa and is one of the smallest countries on the African continent. It consists of a...

Full text Article Equatorial Guinea
Encyclopedia of Environment and Society

THE NATION OF Equatorial Guinea is located in west central Africa. The total land area is 10,811 square miles (28,000 square kilometers) and...

Full text Article Equatorial Guinea
Encyclopedia of Global Health

Equatorial Guinea, on the western coast of Africa, is smaller than the State of Maryland, has the smallest population of any country on the...

See more from Credo