Ali Bongo, masks and zither-harps: meet the hosts

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Know next to nothing about the proud hosts of ACoN 2012, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea? Fear not! Impress your friends with facts gleaned from Jonathan Wilson's five-step guide to each of the co-hosts.


1. Europeans arrived in equatorial West Africa in the 15th century, and gave Gabon its name because of the estuary of the Komo River’s resemblance in shape to the gabao, a Portuguese hooded cloak. Gabon became a centre of the slave trade under French protection. The country became independent in 1960.

2. In 1849, the French attacked a slave ship just off the coast of Gabon, freeing the captives who founded Libreville (‘free town’). It is now the country’s capital, with 600,000 of Gabon’s 1.5 million population living there.

3. Backed by French logging interests, Leon M’Ba was elected president, with Omar Bongo vice-president, in 1961. M'Ba imposed a one-party state in 1964 and fought off a military coup that sought to reimpose democracy with the help of French paratroopers. He died in 1967 and was replaced by Bongo, who ruled until his death in 2009, replaced by his son Ali Bongo.

4. Oil is responsible for 81% of exports and 43% of GDP, but production is declining and it is estimated it will have run out by 2025. Although a per capita annual income of $8,600 is high for the region, wealth is concentrated among a small elite, with over 90% of assets held by under 20% of the population.

5. Gabon is famous for its masks, which come in two main types: the n’goltang of the Fang people and the relicary figures of the Kota. The masks, used on ceremonial occasions such as births, marriages and funerals, are crafted from rare local woods, and are often inlaid with precious materials. Look out for 
them at games, too.

Equatorial Guinea

1. Equatorial Guinea was at various times settled by the Portuguese, the British and the Spanish, and it was even briefly ruled from Buenos Aires during the chaos of the Napoleonic Wars. From 1844 until its independence in 1968, Equatorial Guinea was a Spanish colony, and it remains the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa.

2. Francisco Macias Nguema was elected as Equatorial Guinea’s first president in 1968, but he declared a one-party state two years later. His reign of terror, in which it is estimated 80,000 of the country’s 300,000 population were killed, lasted until 1979 when he was deposed by Teodoro Obiang. Macias’ most notorious atrocity was the execution at Christmas in 1975 of 150 alleged coup plotters in the national stadium, as Mary Hopkin’s song Those Were The Days was played over the tannoy.

3. Obiang remains in power, having survived a reported 12 coup attempts. The most notorious of them came in 2004 and led to a British citizen, Simon Mann, being jailed amid allegations – strongly denied – that the coup had been financially backed by Margaret Thatcher’s son, Mark. Obiang was re-elected in 2009.

4. The economy of Equatorial Guinea has been revolutionised by the discovery of large oil reserves in 1996. As a result, according to World Bank figures, Equatorial Guinea has the world’s 22nd highest per capita income (the UK is 20th), although it's concentrated in the hands of a small elite among the country’s 676,000 population.

5. The Bantu, Equatorial Guinea’s ethnic majority, traditionally dance the bailele to drive off evil spirits. It is usually accompanied by a three- or four-piece orchestra featuring a mvet, an instrument that resembles a cross between a zither and a harp and can have up to 15 strings – an ideal souvenir for travelling fans.

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