Elections in Equatorial Guinea to extend rule of 30-year leader accused of gross corruption

By Michelle Faul, AP
Sunday, November 29, 2009

Eq. Guinea vote to reinstall leader denying graft

JOHANNESBURG — The presidential election in Equatorial Guinea will undoubtedly extend the 30-year rule of Teodoro Obiang Nguema, a man accused of draining his nation’s oil wealth to fabulously enrich family and cronies while his people suffer in slums.

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.

Obiang, 67, denies all charges and his government said in a statement released by an expensive U.S. lobbying firm that Equatorial Guinea “is committed to holding fair and democratic elections. As part of our reform efforts we aim to ensure all voices are heard.”

Opposition parties though complained that the playing field for Sunday’s vote was far from even: 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.

Obiang had boasted at rallies that he would 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 and rigging. This year four men were challenging 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 U.S. 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.

“Obiang has such an extraordinarily tight control that there is no oxygen for civil society to develop independent thought,” Bennett said.

He said that is why an estimated quarter of the population — including writers, historians and artists — 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 $50 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 that cost $200,000.

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

The country’s average annual income per capita has swollen to some $37,000, making the World Bank classify it as a developed nation. But according to U.N. figures, 60 percent of people try to live on less than $1 a day.

Obiang has called such statistics “false,” and strongly denies any corruption.

“I ask myself, where is this corruption, how is it found, where is it discovered?” he said in an interview Friday with the Al-Jazeera television network. “I don’t have knowledge of that. There is none whatsoever.”

A U.S. Senate investigation in 2004 found $700 million stashed away at Riggs Bank in Washington, all held in accounts in the name of Obiang, his family and clan. Some of the money was carried to the bank, a million dollars at a time, in shrink-wrapped bundles, bankers told the Senate. Riggs was fined $41 million and subsequently collapsed.

Despite all that, the human rights group Global Witness last week published documents of an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement indicating U.S. banks since have accepted some $75 million in wire transfers between 2005 and 2007 from Obiang’s favorite son and would-be successor, Teodorin Obiang.

Two of the banks filed suspicious activity reports but still went ahead and accepted the loot.

“This was a spectacular moral failing by the banks, pretty shocking stuff,” said Anthea Lawson of Global Witness.

Her organization says the money bought a $35 million Malibu mansion, $33 million private jet and a fleet of exotic fast cars.

Obiang himself owns two mansions in Washington, according to the Senate investigation. And human rights groups have filed complaints in courts in France and Spain about multimillion-dollar villas and fleets of cars owned by the Obiang family in those countries.

Teodorin Obiang, who has acknowledged a salary of $60,000 a year for being agriculture minister, has not responded to the allegations. But he justified his wealth in a sworn affidavit to a South African court questioning his ownership of luxury mansions and expensive cars in Cape Town in 2006.

He stated that public officials in his country are allowed to partner with foreign companies bidding for government contracts and said this means “a Cabinet minister ends up with a sizable part of the contract price in his bank account.”

President Obiang himself was welcomed to the White House two years after the Riggs scandal, and met with then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who scandalized human rights activists by calling him “a good friend.”

Her comment came after the publication of a State Department report with a long list of human rights abuses in Equatorial Guinea including torture, arbitrary arrest, severe restrictions on freedom of speech and forced child labor.

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