Obiang set for victory in Guinea election

Malabo Elections in Equatorial Guinea yesterday looked certain to extend the 30-year rule of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, a man accused of draining his nation's oil wealth to enrich his family and cronies.

Western governments that have promised to fight corruption so far have done little as companies compete for concessions for petroleum and a burgeoning natural gas industry currently dominated by US multinationals.

Obiang, 67, denies all charges and his government said in a statement released by an expensive US lobbying firm that Equatorial Guinea "is committed to holding fair and democratic elections."

Opposition parties complain campaigners have been attacked and harassed, Obiang gave only six weeks' notice for the election and coverage in the state-controlled media is skewed.

The National Electoral Commission is also headed by the interior minister and weighted with Obiang supporters, and the government has refused to publish the voters' roll.

Foreign journalists including from The Associated Press have not been granted visas and African observers by presidential decree are barred from making "disparaging remarks" and must follow a government program.

Opposition leaders have said that means observers will be kept away from villagers where they charge government-appointed headmen and electoral officials cast votes for all residents.

It was not possible to get through by telephone to Equatorial Guinea by the time polls were due to close Sunday.

Some 290,000 voters are registered and Obiang has boasted at rallies that he will win with more than the 97.1 percent garnered in a 2002 poll widely criticized as fraudulent. Then, he ran unchallenged as opposition leaders pulled out citing harassment. On Sunday, four men challenged Obiang, though none doubt who will win.

"People will vote for Obiang so that they can survive, so that they can keep their jobs," said John E. Bennett, a retired diplomat who was US ambassador there from 1991, left briefly after receiving government-sponsored death threats in 1993 and ended his term in 1994. The government also accused Bennett of dancing on graves in a black magic ritual.

Through government jobs and private companies from hotels to Internet service providers, Obiang and his clique control everything in the small country, Bennett said.

Dr. Wenceslao Mansogo Alo of the main opposition Convergence for Social Democracy said he lost his government hospital job, had all his property expropriated and has been thrown out of a rented home by a frightened landlord since he joined the opposition in 1994.

Bennett said that is why an estimated quarter of the population live in nearby Gabon, Cameroon or Nigeria, or in Spain, the former colonizer. About 600,000 people live in the country.

Bennett said Obiang flies in a £30 million Boeing jet while those needing to get from Malabo, the capital on an island, to Bata, the biggest town on the African mainland, are crammed into a secondhand Russian turboprop.

"The national airline sells the seats, then they sell floor space, and people have to sprawl on top of piles of baggage," he said.

Equatorial Guinea has become Africa's third largest oil producer with income per capita swelling to some £23,000, making the World Bank classify it as a developed nation. But according to U.N. figures, 60 per cent of people try to live on less than $1 a day.

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