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A “miracle”man toppled

He called himself “The One True Miracle of Equatorial Guinea.” With the possible exception of Uganda’s deposed dictator, Idi Amin Dada, no African despot has been more brutal and erratic than Francisco Macias Nguema, the President-for-Life of his tiny West African nation.

In the eleven years since the country won independence from Spain, Macias presided over a reign of terror that took the lives of some 50,000 Guineans and drove perhaps 150,000—one-third of the remaining population—into exile.

To stem the flow, Macias ordered all the boats in the country destroyed. When labor shortages appeared on his cocoa plantations, he pressed 20,000 of his countrymen into slavery at gunpoint. Recalled one Guinean: “If you didn’t go, you were shot.” His approach to dissent was epitomized by the way he dealt with one group of 150 political prisoners: they were lined up in a stadium on Christmas Eve and shot as loudspeakers played the tune, Those Were the Days, My Friend.

Finally Macias’ own end came. Led by his nephew, Colonel Teodore Obiang Nguema Mbazago, a military council seized power in the island capital of Malabo in a bloodless coup. Said the colonel:

“Everybody was unhappy. It was only a matter of coordination.” From his fortified villa in the mainland province of Rio Muni, where he had lived in seclusion for the past two years, Macias put up a brief fight, then fled into the jungle. But first, he burned a huge pile of banknotes: some $105 million in Guinean and foreign currency, or just about all the cash in the country, which he had gathered up before he retired to the villa.

Macias, 57, had been an obscure civil servant before he was elected President in 1968. But once in power, says an acquaintance, he became “a total dictator who had a large charisma and could carry people along with him.” That did not go for the economy, however. Skilled foreign planters and workers fled, and the country’s key cocoa exports collapsed.

What services did not close down for lack of funds were wrecked by Macias’ often inexplicable decisions. Malabo’s lone-electric generating plant has been out of commission since it blew up two years ago after Macias decided that it should be operated without lubricating oil.

The treasury is bankrupt and civil servants have not been paid for six months.

Everything is scarce but starvation and disease. But with Macias gone, if not in captivity, Guineans were jubilant. Foreigners arriving at the Malabo airport last week were greeted by smiling citizens who were eager to shake hands. Their message, as one young radio mechanic expressed it:

“We are glad to see that man gone.”

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