/ 27 November 2009

E Guinea poll ‘a sham’, warns rights groups

Oil-rich Equatorial Guinea goes to the polls on Sunday in what observers say is a sham election designed to rubber stamp the rule of long-term President Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

Obiang, who seized power from his uncle in a 1979 coup, has told supporters in the tiny nation of just less than 700 000 people he intends to win with 97% of the vote. Looking at past election results, this is no idle boast.

Obiang (67) scooped 97,1% of the vote in the last presidential poll in 2002 — he ran unopposed — while his Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) has strolled to overwhelming victories in all elections since multiparty politics was introduced in 1991.

This time around, opposition parties say they have not being given enough time to campaign to allow for a free and fair election.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the opposition has been harassed and denied equal access to the media, while the 43 international observers being sent by the African Union and Economic Community of Central African States are subject to rules that compromise their efforts to monitor the election.

While the world’s attention has focused on more colourful African dictators, such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, observers say Obiang has quietly gone about stripping his country of its wealth and squashing its opposition, unconcerned by the squalor its citizens live in.

”President Obiang claims that he’s committed to the rule of law,” said Arvind Ganesan, director of the Business and Human Rights Program at HRW. ”But his actions time and again are those of a dictator determined to hang on to power and control of the country’s oil money.”

Equatorial Guinea became Africa’s third-largest oil producer behind Nigeria and Angola after the discovery of oil and gas deposits in the mid-1990s sparked huge growth.

It now produces 250 000 barrels per day, a drop from a peak of 350 000.

Despite per-capita income that rivals some Western European nations, Equatorial Guinea ranks 118th on the United Nations Human Development index and some indicators have actually got worse since the discovery of oil.

According to the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef), under-five mortality rose to 206 per thousand in 2007, from 170 in 2000.

”With its plentiful oil, paid for by American companies, Equatorial Guinea should be one of the richest countries in the world,” said Anthea Lawson, a senior investigator at Global Witness, which monitors the link between natural resources and human rights abuses.

”Instead its people are among the poorest, and the government is an extreme example of a kleptocracy in action.”

Transparency International regularly ranks the nation as one of the most corrupt in the world in its annual corruption index — this year placing it twelfth from the bottom on its 180-nation list.

The anti-corruption watchdog this year lodged a complaint in France against against Obiang and two other African dictators — Gabon’s late leader Omar Bongo and the Republic of Congo’s President Denis Sassou-Nguesso — accusing them of spending huge sums of public money on luxury properties and vehicles in France.

A French court ruled it could not proceed as there was not enough evidence of wrongdoing.

Obiang’s son, known by his nickname Teodorin, was also investigated by the US in 2007 for purchases made stateside, including a $35-million mansion in Malibu, a $33-million private jet and a fleet of luxury cars.

Teodorin’s official income is $4 000 a month — his salary as a government minister.

No charges have been laid, leading some to suggest that the US is happy to overlook the indiscretions of the family to allow US firms access to Equatorial Guinea’s oil.

”The US has generally taken a far more effective and robust approach to tackling foreign corruption and bribery than many of its international peers but it seems to have a blind spot when it comes to Equatorial Guinea,” said Lawson.

In 2006, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza prompted outrage among human rights campaigners when she called Obiang a ”good friend” during his visit to Washington.

The only true opposition to Obiang is a government-in-exile, led by Sevoro Moto Nsa and based in former colonial master Spain.

Moto was accused of involvement in the notorious ”Wonga Coup” — a 2004 attempt by British mercenary Simon Mann and a collection of South African mercenaries to depose Obiang and allegedly install the exiled leader.

Obiang pardoned Mann and four of his South African co-plotters in early November. — Sapa-dpa