Ramón Esono Ebalé, a cartoonist from the tiny West African country of Equatorial Guinea, found that out recently. He was arrested on Sept. 16 during a visit to Malabo, the country’s capital.
The target of Esono’s cartoons is the country’s long-time leader, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has ruled Equatorial Guinea with an iron fist since overthrowing his own uncle in a coup in 1979. Governing in Equatorial Guinea has been an Obiang family business — an often ruthless one — since independence in 1968.
“[Obiang’s] family basically controls all important sectors of the economy,” says journalist Rowan Moore Gerety, who has written about Esono’s tireless efforts to use cartoons to unseat the dictatorship in Equatorial Guinea. The title of his article says it all: Comics Without Captions: Can a cartoonist help unseat a dictator?
Equatorial Guinea was the ultimate backwater until it struck oil in the 1990s. Now it’s Africa’s third largest producer. The oil money rolls in to the government but doesn’t get reinvested in the people.
“[Equatorial Guinea] is a very important oil producer,” says Moore Gerety. “It’s about 95 or 98 percent of the economy and really most people there don’t touch any of it.”
A 2017 Human Rights Watch report said that “mismanagement of its oil wealth has contributed to chronic underfunding of its public health and education systems in violation of its human rights obligations.”
Esono, known by his pen name, Jamón y Queso, uses his drawings to expose the gross inequality in Equatorial Guinea. His images are often crude and outrageous and his focus is squarely on President Obiang and his repressive leadership. And that is exactly what Esono has come up against.
“They have a very active secret police and they really don’t tolerate any dissidents,” says Moore Gerety. “People who speak out are either imprisoned or very quickly find a way to get out of the country.” Esono has now experienced both fates.
When he first started exhibiting his cartoons in Equatorial Guinea in the mid-2000s, Esono felt the sting of censorship. It wasn’t coming from government censors but exhibit organizers who worried about the words Esono was putting in his cartoon characters speech balloons. His response: Leave the speech balloons empty, an apt metaphor for the state of freedom of speech in Equatorial Guinea.Continue