Observers: polls not free, fair

2009-11-29 17:22

Malabo - Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema looked to extend his 30-year rule over the central African oil nation on Sunday in a poll widely criticised for falling short of democratic standards.

Obiang himself was quoted before the election as boasting he would better his 2002 score of 97.1%. He is seen pursuing his goal of transforming the tiny country of 650 000 into an energy major, despite mounting human rights concerns.

"In recent weeks it (the government) has stifled and harassed the country's beleaguered political opposition ... (and) imposed serious constraints on international observers," New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement.

"There is no credible opposition to speak of," IHS Global Insight analyst Kissy Agyeman-Togobo said of the lack of serious rivals to Obiang's ruling PDGE party in the election. First results are due later on Sunday.

"Obiang is assured victory, perhaps even increasing upon his 2002 win," Agyeman-Togobo added in a commentary.

An eyewitness in the capital Malabo said turnout appeared weak. Soldiers guarded polling stations, some of which had not seen any voters by late morning. Many streets were empty after a temporary ban on car travel was imposed this week.

In Malabo, a source close to the international observation mission noted that few if any foreign media had been allowed into the country to cover the election.

Obiang came to power in a 1979 palace coup and has faced growing criticism that the country's vast oil wealth has not improved the lot of its citizens.

The country was ranked 12th from bottom in this year's survey of perceptions of corruption in 180 countries published by Berlin-based Transparency International.

While oil production has slipped from peaks of over 350 000 barrels per day as some fields mature, Obiang's drive to turn Equatorial Guinea into a major energy player has met some degree of success.

US firms such as Exxon Mobil have dominated the sector, but it has caught the eye of European energy firms such as Germany's E.ON Ruhrgas and Spain's Union Fenosa with plans to double natural gas exports in five years.

Despite his firm grip of the country, Obiang has faced several threats from abroad, including a 2004 coup attempt by mercenaries led by former British special forces officer Simon Mann. Earlier this year seaborne gunmen attacked his palace.

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