Equatorial Guinea Takes Stock After Giant Explosions

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Equatorial Guinea Takes Stock After Giant Explosions

KAMPALA, Uganda—Hundreds of rescue workers and volunteers fanned out across devastated neighborhoods in Equatorial Guinea’s largest city on Monday, searching for survivors a day after a series of massive explosions erupted in the Central African nation.

Television footage showed pickup trucks, taxis, vans, and ambulances crisscrossing the port city of Bata, carrying people who had been wounded in Sunday’s blasts. The explosions were triggered by improperly stored dynamite kept in a military base near the Atlantic shoreline, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo said Sunday.

By Monday, clinics had run out of beds, according to state media. The country’s Health Ministry said that the number of people confirmed dead had risen to 98, with more than 600 hospitalized. Officials said they expect the death toll to climb.

The explosion has drawn comparisons with Lebanon’s massive explosion at the port of Beirut in August, which left 210 people dead and caused some $15 billion of property damage, and the 2002 explosion at an arms dump in Lagos, Nigeria, that killed more than 1,000 people

The Equatorial Guinea disaster is a major test for Mr. Obiang, the world’s longest-serving president. On Monday, the main opposition party accused him of mishandling the crisis, which it said was revealing the poor state of the oil-rich country’s healthcare system. The small country of 1.5 million people, which hosts Africa’s third-largest crude-oil reserves, has been plagued by years of widespread corruption under Mr. Obiang, who has been in power since 1979, when Jimmy Carter was U.S. president.

Proceeds from oil—and its small population—have propelled the nation to rank among the countries with the highest per capita income on the continent, although economists and rights groups have long said that the majority of residents live on less than $2 a day. Mismanagement and corruption left the country unprepared for last year’s oil price crash, according to Human Rights Watch.

“Seeing the injured arriving in taxis and vans, without ambulances, is a sufficient indicator that Equatorial Guinea is in very bad hands,” the main opposition party, Convergence for Social Democracy, said. “There is no government.”

Equatorial Guinea’s Health Ministry said the government had sent a team of psychiatrists to attend to people suffering from trauma following the explosions, which began Sunday afternoon and continued late into the night. The government didn’t address concerns raised by the opposition about providing shelter to the large number of people whose homes were destroyed.

In 2019, the country reached out to the International Monetary Fund for a rescue loan of $280 million, drawing criticism from rights groups that the country is too rich to merit the loan. Equatorial Guinea has per capita income of over $10,000, which is higher than countries such as Brazil and China, according to the World Bank.

Authorities in Switzerland, the U.S., South Africa and France have been investigating Mr. Obiang of corruption, alleging that the president and close allies have siphoned off hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds, in a country where around half a million people remain in poverty. In 2019, Swiss authorities seized and auctioned off some 25 super cars, owned by Teodorin Obiang Nguema, President Obiang’s son, defense minister and heir apparent.

Mr. Obiang has increasingly faced pressure from international rights groups, and lenders to uproot corruption, with little success. His military, comprising around 1,500 service members, is poorly trained and ill equipped, and Mr. Obiang has resorted to foreign troops to bolster his personal security.

Over the past three years, Uganda has maintained around 300 troops in Equatorial Guinea, providing security to Mr. Obiang and the country’s vital installations. The Obiang family also employs Israeli security guards, who walked with the president’s son as he surveyed the wreckage on Sunday.

Write to Nicholas Bariyo at nicholas.bariyo@wsj.com

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