Want to escape ? Try this luxury ghost town in Africa

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CIUDAD DE LA PAZ, Equatorial Guinea — In a jungle glade, here are 50 luxury villas on manicured grounds.

Each 7,100 square foot home has four bedrooms, two living rooms, an office, staff quarters and a dining room. And in each dining room is a formal table set anytime for 10 diners, ready in case all the African Union Heads of State are visiting at the same time and want to host dinner parties.

Which they never do.

Meaning that in a jungle glade there are 50 empty luxury villas on manicured grounds.

It’s all part of the surreal reality of Ciudad de la Paz, a capital from scratch imagined a decade ago by Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, a dictator whose coffers briefly overflowed during an oil boom. who came and went.

What started out as a visionary or conceited project, or both, failed, leaving behind a white elephant in the Central African forest. Wide boulevards and a 35 km bypass without cars. Sites without construction. Apartment complexes without tenants. Shopping centers without stores and cinemas without films.

And a spectacular five-star golf resort with no guests.

“It’s an incredible city that makes no sense,” says a European who works here.

Ciudad de la Paz is part of the great tradition of strong men who build great monuments for their own power. President Félix Houphouët-Boigny moved the capital of Côte d’Ivoire from Abidjan to his hometown, Yamoussoukro, and built there the largest church in the world, Notre-Dame de la Paix.

Mr. Obiang built a scaled-down version of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican in his own hometown, Mongomo. But he kept his biggest ambitions for the forest capital, a city designed for a population of around 200,000.

Reduced version of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Mongomo, Equatorial Guinea, the hometown of President Teodoro Obiang


Photo:

Michael M. Phillips / The Wall Street Journal

Inside the basilica.


Photo:

Michael M. Phillips / The Wall Street Journal

He named it Ciudad de la Paz, in Spanish for the city of peace.

Equatorial Guinea, made up of a few islands in the Gulf of Guinea and a mainland between Gabon and Cameroon, is the only former Spanish colony in sub-Saharan Africa. After independence in 1968, the country was ruled by Mr. Obiang’s uncle, Francisco Macías, whose stated philosophy of government was “In politics the winner wins and the loser dies”.

Among other atrocities, Mr. Macías had scores performed in a football stadium as the pop hit “Those Were the Days” went through loudspeakers. – That was the time, my friend. We thought they would never end.

In 1979, Mr. Obiang knocked down his uncle, who died in front of a firing squad.

For the past 42 years, Mr. Obiang, 79, has run the country as a family business that has drawn international criticism for allegations of corruption and human rights violations.

In 2013, the US Department of Justice accused the president’s son and heir apparent, Vice President Teodoro “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang Mangue, of having accumulated a fortune of $ 300 million through corruption while he was in office. government post paid less than $ 100,000 per year. Among other expenses, according to court documents, he bought eight Ferraris, seven Rolls-Royces, five Bentleys, two Lamborghinis, a Gulfstream V jet, a $ 30 million Malibu mansion and over $ 3 million in Michael’s memorabilia. Jackson.

When these corruption allegations surfaced in the press in 2011, Mr. Obiang Mangue called the United States Ambassador to Malabo for help in defending his reputation. “I have never stolen money from our country’s treasury,” he told the ambassador, according to a State Department cable in court records, claiming his income came from government contracts legitimate.

The Justice Department has attacked Mr. Obiang Mangue’s assets in civil forfeiture suits with names such as United States v. One Michael Jackson Signed Thriller Jacket.

The US government and Mr. Obiang Mangue settled in 2014. The settlement agreement did not contain any admission of wrongdoing by Mr. Obiang Mangue. He kept his Michael Jackson crystal-encrusted touring jet and glove, but the Justice Department seized the proceeds from the sale of the mansion, a Ferrari and a collection of Michael Jackson statues. In September, the United States announced that it was using $ 26.6 million of the transferred assets to provide the people of Equatorial Guinea with Covid-19 vaccines and other medical care.

Oil Minister Gabriel Obiang Lima Abaga, another of the president’s children and often the regime’s face to the outside world, did not respond to written requests for comment on allegations of corruption and human rights violations surrounding the family reigning.

Equatorial Guinea’s ambassador to Washington did not respond to requests for an interview.

An empty boulevard approaches the unfinished presidential palace in Ciudad de la Paz.


Photo:

Michael M. Phillips / The Wall Street Journal

“We are determined to take the necessary actions to improve governance and fight corruption,” the country’s finance minister, Valentin Ela Maye, told the International Monetary Fund in September.

The discovery of offshore oil and gas in the Gulf of Guinea in 1996 both fueled alleged corruption and allowed Obiang to imagine his new capital.

The president, who survived a foreign coup attempt in 2004, said the new seat of government would be better protected than Malabo, the current capital of Bioko Island, from maritime attacks.

“We need a safe place for my government and for future governments,” Obiang told the BBC in 2012.

At the time, an architecture blog, ArchDaily, described a plan centered around Avenue de la Justice, 250 feet wide and inspired by Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris.

There was talk of a Formula 1 circuit, a lagoon with speedboats and sailboats and a cathedral served by a funicular.

But when oil prices fell in 2014, the government ran out of cash and the city’s work was halted. The names of Chinese state-owned construction companies are still painted on signs outside the shells of government office buildings, but cranes have stopped lifting and diggers have stopped digging.

A blocked ministry building is named after a Chinese construction company.


Photo:

Michael M. Phillips / The Wall Street Journal

Sparkling twin office towers with upscale apartments, a shopping mall, and cinemas collect dust on the road to the unfinished Presidential Palace.

Hundreds of surveillance cameras still cover all angles on all the empty roads, although it is not clear that anyone is looking through the cobwebs covering the lenses.

The project, although stalled, won Mr. Obiang some admirers.

In 2013, the president gave New Yorker Victor Mooney, a long-distance rower, $ 30,000 to sponsor a transatlantic rowboat called the Spirit of Malabo.

After Mr. Mooney completed his trip in 2014, Mr. Obiang granted him Equatorial Guinean citizenship and promised him a house in Ciudad de la Paz.

Mr. Mooney has not visited the city, but expresses no doubt that Mr. Obiang will keep his wish.

“I haven’t occupied the house yet, but I’m sure it’s in the works,” says Mooney.

Dr Ousmane Ba, an American teaching English at the African American University of Central Africa, one of the few functioning institutions in Ciudad de la Paz, credits Mr Obiang for his vision.

“He laid the groundwork for something that could have been great,” says Dr Ba.

Library of the African American University of Central Africa, one of the few functioning institutions in Ciudad de la Paz.


Photo:

Michael M. Phillips / The Wall Street Journal

Administrators hope the university start-up, built for 5,000 students, will have 500 this year. But it has been embroiled in controversy. Swedish rector Dr Said Irandoust complained that the regime appoints professors on the basis of political and family ties.

Last month the education minister called him “bossy” and “arrogant,” and cut his contract short.

Locals estimate that there are perhaps 2,000 residents in the city, 400 of whom work at the Grand Hotel Djibloho.

The $ 400 million Italian-built resort has 452 rooms, plus all 50 villas. In a typical day, maybe 15 or 20 rooms are occupied. Some days the hotel has no clients.

The hotel loses about $ 5.5 million a year, covered by the Obiang government, according to managing director Vincenzo Presti, director of Luxury Hotel Management Ltd., the private company operating the hotel, based in London.

Vincenzo Presti, General Manager of the Grand Hotel Djibloho, exhibits the presidential suite.


Photo:

Michael M. Phillips / The Wall Street Journal

Hotel staff could be forgiven for thinking that they are running a hotel for the sake of running a hotel. To keep morale up at daily staff meetings, Mr. Presti has his team pretend to operate a hotel in Madrid, New York, or some other big city.

To keep morale up, he sees the hotel as an opportunity to train young Africans in hospitality professions. “It’s like it’s a school, even though there’s no one here,” he says.

The breakfast buffet is stocked with croissants and fresh fruit. There is a spa, convention center, and fertility clinic run by a Spanish doctor. The golf greens are trimmed. Rooms, including a presidential suite in which Mr. Obiang has never slept, are cleaned daily

“It’s in the middle of the forest,” says Presti. “If we don’t continue, the forest will enter the hotel.

Write to Michael M. Phillips at [email protected]

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