Eq. Guinea leader expected to win near 100 percent

JOHANNESBURG – Equatorial Guinea — a violent land of coups, petrodollar wealth and killer poverty — is holding a presidential election Sunday that its leader of 30 years says he will win by more than the 97 percent garnered in the last widely criticized vote.

The vote to reinstall Teodoro Obiang Nguema will be hard to judge since journalists have been unable to get visas, and African observers must be escorted by government employees and must not make "disparaging remarks," according to a presidential decree.

Western governments, meanwhile, are accused of turning a blind eye to corruption and repression, their eyes firmly fixed on the West African nation's abundant oil and gas reserves.

"Elections here have become a game," said Dr. Wenceslao Mansogo Alo, human rights representative of the main opposition Convergence for Social Democracy.

Obiang has announced that he will win more than the 97.1 percent garnered in the 2002 election.

"I am the people's candidate and I don't see anyone who can go against the will of the people," Obiang, 67, said at a rally Sunday.

A news release from one of two U.S. lobbying firms employed by the Obiang administration said the country has "undertaken an ambitious effort to ensure an open election process."

"The government of Equatorial Guinea is committed to holding fair and democratic elections. As part of our reform efforts we aim to ensure all voices are heard," the release quoted Equatorial Guinea's ambassador to the United States, Purificacion Angue Ondo, as saying.

The United States, though, called the 2002 vote "seriously flawed" and few doubt Obiang will win again.

"We feel isolated and disappointed because we are doing what little we can while those who have interests in this country should be putting pressure on this regime; countries like the United States and the European Union have the power to intervene with this dictatorship," Mansogo said.

American company Exxon Mobil was first to discover oil in Equatorial Guinea in 1994 and U.S. companies continue to dominate the industry there but face growing competition.

Equatorial Guinea's per capita income has ballooned to about $31,000 a year, on a par with former colonizer Spain and making it the richest nation in sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet, with a small population of just 600,000, life for most Equato-Guineans has become harsher: Some 60 percent struggle to survive on less than $1 a day. The U.N. Children's Fund says child mortality has increased and a third of children never complete primary school.

The average citizen is unlikely to live beyond 50, yet someone in Brazil — with an average annual income of less than $10,000 — can expect to live to 72.

"It's a scandal," said political analyst Paul-Simon Handy of the South African Institute for Security Studies. "Only some 30 to 40 percent of the population has access to clean water and electricity."

Meanwhile, the government boasts of multimillion-dollar investments in roads and other infrastructure.

The country's ambassador to the United States this week had an expensive U.S. lobbying firm distribute a letter and a "Facts versus Fiction" sheet around Capitol Hill to try to counter criticisms about corruption.

Obiang has survived attempts to oust him, including a foreign-funded coup attempt foiled in 2004 and a seaborne attack on his presidential palace last February.