Bubis of Equatorial Guinea

Location: Fernando Po/ Bioko (island off coast of Cameroon)
Population: 20,000-25,000 (est.)
% of population: 6%-7%
Religion: Catholic, indigenous beliefs
Language: Spanish is the official language

The Bubis are the indigenous inhabitants of the island of Fernando Po (now Bioko) which is part of Equatorial Guinea, although the island itself is physically much closer to Cameroon. The island was “discovered” by the Portuguese in the late fifteenth century and ceded to Spain, together with trading rights over the mainland, in 1778. It was leased to the British as a naval base and was used as a refuge for freed slaves during the early nineteenth century.

Fernando Po was not administered by the Spanish until the 1890s when the world demand for cocoa increased and they recognized the island’s suitability for growing the crop. Since the local labour force was too small for economic production Spain laid claim to the adjacent mainland, the north-western region of French Gabon, which was granted to Spain by the Treaty of Paris in 1900, and renamed Rio Muni. This territory and the island of Fernando Po together made up the country of Equatorial Guinea.

The Bubis are one of three groups inhabiting Fernando Po. The other two are the Fernandinos, descendants of freed slaves, and the Nigerian workforce, brought to the island when it became clear after Rio Muni labour had been introduced that there were still not sufficient numbers to grow the cocoa crop. The population of the mainland is largely made up of Fangs, a people inhabiting parts of Cameroon and Gabon as well as Rio Muni. The Bubis were originally a farming people but the Spanish amalgamated their farms into cocoa plantations; some Bubis were retained as foremen on the plantations; others received pensions and a Spanish education for their children. A few who had been educated abroad were able to borrow money from the plantation companies and establish themselves in business. The Bubis therefore initially had little interest in independence but the Spanish encouraged Bubi nationalism and separatism as a counterweight to the Fangs of Rio Muni.

Independence was granted to the colony in 1968 and a federal two-province system of government was established. Although the Bubis comprised only about 6% of the population they initially had one third of the parliamentary seats. The Spanish had made little effort to develop the country during their rule and the new government was faced with the enormous task of modernization in every sphere. It soon became apparent that the new Prime Minister, Francisco Macias Nguema, a member of the Fang tribe, was interested in accruing personal power above all else. He formed his own party and all other parties were banned. Opposition leaders, including prominent members of the Bubi community, and members of his own government and civil service were killed, tortured or exiled, together with their families and sometimes their entire village if they opposed his actions. The Deputy President, who was a Bubi, died in imprisonment as did many others. Nigerian workers began to leave the country in 1972 and diplomatic relations with that country were severed. In 1973 Equatorial Guinea was declared a unitary state. The island peoples were denied any significant rights, and islanders were forbidden to leave Fernando Po which was renamed Macias Nguema Biyong. The entire island was turned into a giant slave labour camp.

The international community was slow to condemn the government of Equatorial Guinea despite the fact that a quarter of the population were killed or fled the country. Most countries remained silent about the atrocities committed there, whilst discreetly continuing to trade with its government. Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and the Anti-Slavery Society, publicized the situation and in 1976 the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities decided on grounds of gross and persistent violations of human rights, to examine the situation in Equatorial Guinea.

In August 1979 the regime of Macias Nguema was overthrown by a military coup led by his cousin, Obiang Nguema Mbasago. Macias was shot and political prisoners were released. Spain was asked to return to take over the day-to-day administration of the country and later a UN Plan for the restoration of the battered economy became operative. However the country remained under military rule and the Fang tribal group continued to occupy positions of power. No political parties are allowed and opposition groups work from exile, mainly in Spain. Among these groups is the Bubi Nationalist Group, founded in 1983, which supported independence from Rio Muni for the peoples of Fernando Po (which was renamed Bioko in 1979).