MALABO, Equatorial Guinea (AFP) – In a country awash with oil, the poorest survive in shantytowns a stone’s throw from smart modern apartments and family homes supposedly built to help those most in need.
The government of Equatorial Guinea had billed the rows of state-subsidised housing as never-to-be-missed home-owning opportunities for the poor.
But people familiar with the blocks say the homes are typically occupied by middle-class families and some of the country’s most privileged.
“Just look at the cars around here,” said Leandro Eneme, a 42-year-old trader, pointing to the gleaming SUVs making their way between apartments on well-paved roads. “There’s nothing poor about this place!”
He lives in the Buena Esperanza neighbourhood of the capital Malabo, the product of a state housing programme that emerged after an oil price boom in the 2000s.
Equatorial Guinea’s President, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, in power since 1979 and Africa’s longest serving head of state, had promised that developments like this would provide “public housing for everybody”.
In the past decade, authorities have built more than 8,600 state-subsidised homes in the African mainland section of the country and the island of Bioko, according to government figures.
But with a population of 1.2 million, largely impoverished and cut off from the lavish lifestyles of an elite surrounding the president, critics say the scale of the programme is way too small to be effective and vulnerable to corruption.
“You can’t get one of these homes if you earn less than 300,000 CFA francs (500/450 euros) a month,” said Eneme.
Many statistics on Equatorial Guinea are unavailable but it is estimated that more than two-thirds of the population of this tiny central African state survive on less than USD2 (1.8 euros) a day.
Buena Esperanza was supposedly built to rehouse residents of the nearby shantytown of Nubili, the biggest informal settlement in Malabo.
The name of the new project means “Good Hope” in Spanish – an emotion that many of those living in Nubili may have felt when the scheme was announced.
Thousands of people in Nubili are crammed into tiny shacks erected from rusting corrugated steel or wood, often without safe water, sewage or electricity. Accidental fires are a notorious risk.
But almost a decade since it began, the vast majority of people in Nubili remain stuck.
Elena Oye, a food seller, said that the cost of her dream home turned out to be a nightmare.
“We lost the apartment because we didn’t have enough money. We didn’t even have enough to eat,” she said. The down payment was the equivalent of USD2,500, followed by monthly payments of USD120 spread out over a number of years, she said.
Oye said she earns the equivalent of around USD200 in a good month, and meeting the needs of her four children is a daily struggle.
“Most housing (in Equatorial Guinea) does not meet minimum standards,” said the Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa (CAHF) in a report.
“Houses are derelict and unsafe, sewage and refuse removal are inadequate, and there is, among other problems, overcrowding and insufficient ventilation.”
A senator, a resident of Buena Esperanza who wished to remain anonymous, defended the government’s record.
“Many people who once lived in shanties now have decent homes, like here,” he said.
Information Minister Eugenio Nze Obiang told AFP that the government had taken action.
“When will people stop complaining? There isn’t a country in the world where the government provides free housing,” Obiang said.
“The government has done the best it can by building these homes and cutting prices.”
The government’s room for manoeuvre has been crimped by the slump in oil prices which began in 2014, badly hitting revenue.