“Until our world decides that every human matters, that everyone has a right to food and safety and freedom and healthcare and equality, it is the obligation of those privileged to have food and safety and freedom and healthcare and equality to fight tirelessly for those who do not.” – L.R. Knost
February 20th, every year, is globally recognised and celebrated as the World Day of Social Justice. By setting aside a day for the commemoration of social justice, the United Nations attempts to bring the vexed issue of inequality and gripping poverty in the midst of a much more prosperous world to the front burner. The adoption by the International Labour Organisation of the Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalisation clearly shows the UN system’s commitment to social justice. The Declaration, in letter and spirit, focalises on guaranteeing fair outcomes for all, through social protection, social dialogue, employment, fundamental principles and rights at work. Though the Declaration is necessitated initially by the vagaries of globalisation and the need to protect countries and peoples left with the short end of the globalisation stick in labour matters, it stands today as both an important statement and platform for rethinking the epoch and renegotiating the rights of every human to be socially catered for, regardless of location and status.
Generally, the term ‘Social Justice’ can be somewhat ambiguous and/or elusive in its meaning and applications. Despite the ambiguity which underpins social justice as an idea that is more readily associated with legal justice, according to Janet Finn and Maxine Jacobson, some scholars have submitted that social justice reflects a concept of fairness in the assignment of fundamental rights and duties, economic opportunities, and social conditions. This position resonates with the theme of World Day of Social Justice 2020, which is “Closing the Inequalities Gap to Achieve Social Justice”. Nothing can be more signifying than this year’s theme, which recognises social justice as a crucial tool for promoting human development, human dignity and fairness.
It is trite to argue that Africa provides the world with priceless data on inequality and uneven social conditions. Forced to lie prostrate by the combined effects of bad governance, corruption and globalisation, a significant percentage of African people are confronted daily with the most advanced and adverse social inequality conditions of contemporary time. Inequalities gaps in Africa are so wide that most countries on the continent lag behind in the Hyman Development Index (HDI). Poverty, avoidable and treatable diseases, unemployment, absent or broken social amenities, and lack of opportunities have worsened the social conditions in many African countries. The picture out of Africa, reveals that there is almost an annual geometric rise in the wealth of a few (the ruling political and economic elite) and the poverty of the majority. Even in countries blessed with humungous wealth and resources such as Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Equatorial Guinea, the wealth of these aforementioned nations has been cornered by the elite, creating conditions for festering inequalities and entrenching social injustice as a standard and rule.
Equatorial Guinea, presents one of the world’s most gripping story of inequality and social injustice; it is a heart breaking story. Located on the west coast of Central Africa, with an area of 28,000 square kilometres (11,000 sq mi), Equatorial Guinea is the only African country with Spanish as official language. According to 2015 figures, the country has an estimated population of 1,222,245. As one of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest oil producers, she is the richest country per capita in Africa, with gross domestic product (GDP) adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP) per capita, which ranks 43rd in the world. However, the good news about Equatorial Guinea ends abruptly there, replaced by the ugly realities/statistics, which are associated with almost all African countries.
With massive oil resources and a population far less than two million people, Equatorial Guinea presents the macabre spectacle of oil curse, far worse than any other in the world. The country’s wealth is extremely unevenly distributed, with just a negligible percentage of people benefiting from the oil riches. Despite a huge oil wealth and small population, the country ranks 135th on the 2016 Human Development Index, with 20% of children dying before the age of five. Shockingly, only 2 to 3 percent of the country’s annual budget is spent on health and education; only one out of four newborns in Equatorial Guinea is immunised against polio and measles and one out of three against tuberculosis – among the lowest rates in the world. Life expectancy and infant mortality are below the sub-Saharan African average. Roughly half the population lacks access to potable water. About four out of ten 6- to 12-year olds in Equatorial Guinea are not in school, many more than in African countries with far fewer resources per capita. Half of children who begin primary school never complete it and less than one-quarter go on to middle school.
These grim and unenviable statistics notwithstanding, about 80 percent of national budgets are devoted to many questionable large-scale infrastructure projects, which dot the country. Several investigations carried out by multilateral agencies, NGOs and CSOs have revealed gory detail of how senior government officials reap enormous profits from public construction contracts awarded to companies they fully or partially own, in many cases in partnership with foreign companies, in an opaque and non-competitive process. These projects are usually massive conduit pipe for siphoning money from the national purse just to enrich the elites and sink the poor deeper in the pit of poverty, with very little left for health and education, which benefit the ordinary people
For instance, between 2009 and 2013, Equatorial Guinea reportedly earned about US$4 billion every year in oil revenue, out of which she spent US$4.2 billion on roads and other infrastructures. According to IMF, the county only spent US$140 million on education and US$92 million on health in 2011; a pattern which she has maintained for years.
Meanwhile, due to massive and unabated stealing of their commonwealth and the profligacy of its leadership, Equatorial Guinea records one of the world biggest inequality gaps. In the country’s capital, Malabo and Bata, her largest city, opulence and poverty stand shoulder to shoulder as a testament to inequality and social injustice. For the ordinary people of Equatorial Guinea, the real tragedy is the projection that their country’s oil wells will run out in 2035; a grim reality with grave implications for social justice in that country. Of course, the inequality gap would worsen.
What the story of Equatorial Guinea shows is that poverty and inequality are not caused essentially by paucity of funds or the poverty of resources. Rather, they are caused by the poverty of ideas and lack of commitment to equity, fairness and social justice by those entrusted with leadership. Against the backdrop of its huge oil wealth and low population, the country’s inequality gap should ordinarily be negligible. But that’s not the case due to a corrupt, greedy and unimaginative leadership. The media is filled with stories on the stupendous wealth of Equatorial Guinea’s long term, maximum ruler, Obiang Nguema (in charge since 1979 after killing his own uncle), and his playboy son, Teodorin Obiang, who is also the country’s Vice President.
On the celebration of World Day of Social Justice Day, we owe the long suffering people of Equatorial Guinea the onerous duty of calling attention to their plight by highlighting their macabre story of lack in the midst of plenty. The world must do more by demanding social justice reforms and the building of institutions, which when combined with the country’s wealth, would reduce significantly if not totally eradicate inequality from that country. Truly and sadly, the tragedy called Equatorial Guinea validates the deadpan submission of Bryan Stevenson, that: “The opposite of poverty is not wealth. In too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.” Whatever it takes, the world must demand and get social justice for Equatorial Guineans beyond the mere rhetoric and sloganeering of World Day of Social Justice.
Olumide Olugbemi-Gabriel, PhD
Academic and public intellectual