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Africa

Elections likely to endorse authoritarian regime in Equatorial Guinea

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema has ruled Equatorial Guinea for almost 37 years, longer than any African head of state. Elections on April 24 will likely secure him another seven year term in office.

Even on the darkest nights, gas flames can be seen from miles away. Punta Europa is one of the largest oil fields in Equatorial Guinea. It's situated in the north of Bioko Island, 200 kilometers away from the mainland on central Africa's western coast. The island is also home to the nation's capital, Malabo. The country is dripping with oil and gas wealth. According to the World Bank, the average income per capita is more than $23,000 per year (20,000 euros). That's ten times what the average Tanzanian or Senegalese earns – it's a figure comparable with the average yearly earnings in a European country such as Hungary.

But the gas flames burning in the distance are all most Equatorial Guineans see of the country's wealth from natural resources. "There's a lack of hospitals, education is poor, and the majority of the population can only dream of having electricity and running water in their homes," says Tutu Alicante. The lawyer has spent years fighting for human rights in his homeland with his US-based NGO, EG Justice.

Opposition: intimidated, powerless

Equatorial Guinea's president Teodoro Obiang Nguema is Africa's longest serving leader. He has been in office since August 3, 1979, the day he overthrew his uncle Francisco Macías Nguema in coup ending a regime of terror and sending the former leader to his death. But those hoping Teodoro Obiang Nguema would bring democracy to the country were quickly disappointed. The new president put a stop to the public executions commonplace under his uncle's regime. But human rights organizations like Amnesty International continue to accuse the country of routine torture and the arbitrary detention of government critics.

A tank in a military parade in Equatorial Guinea

Obiang at a military parade commemorating the 1979 uprising

At the last elections in 2009, Teodoro Obiang Nguema won 97 percent of the vote, securing another seven year term in office. His party PDGE regularly wins parliamentary votes with a similar majority, always falling just short of 100 percent. There are only two members of the opposition in the country's parliament: one in the Senate and one in the Chamber of Deputies.

"Equatorial Guinea has a long history of manipulating elections," says João Paulo Batalha from Portuguese NGO TIAC (Civic Association for Transparency and Integrity), which has a focus on Equatorial Guinea. Batalha describes the upcoming elections as a political "show, which only serves the fiction that Equatorial Guinea is a democracy. That's the last thing the country is."

Call for election boycott

Observers are not expecting the presidential elections on April 24 to be free and fair. One of the most promising opposition politicians, Gabriel Nse Obiang Obono, leader of the party Citizens for the Innovation of Equatorial Guinea, was not permitted to run in the elections. The electoral commission said he had not lived in the country continuously for the last five years, as the constitution demands.

Obono's party then called for a boycott of the elections, following the lead of the Democratic Opposition Front (FOD), representing several opposition parties, which called for a poll boycott back in March.

"The President controls everything: the organization of the elections, the whole apparatus of the state, and the media," says Batalha. The president is the only one in a position to spread his political messages – unlike the few remaining opposition candidates. "The opposition has absolutely no chance. Equatorial Guinea has an extremely repressive regime," Batalha says.

Equatorial Guinea's international airport, named after the president

Oil wealth flows into prestige projects like the international airport, opened in 2012, which is named after the president

A family-owned country?

"If the elections are boycotted, Obiang will win. If the elections aren't boycotted, Obiang will also win," says Tutu Alicante from the NGO EG Justice. But while a boycott cannot change the election results, it does make a point, Alicante emphasises: "Obiang has no legitimacy as president."

Obiang himself announced as campaigning began at the end of April that it would be his last term in office and that he would not run for presidency again after the next term ends in 2020. Tutu Alicante is sceptical: "We are concerned that he will try to appoint his son "Teodorin" Obiang, the current vice president, as his successor."

If that were to happen, the country would have been ruled by a single family - Francisco Macías Nguema, Teodoro Obiang Nguema and "Teodorin" Obiang – since its independence from Spain in 1968.

Antonio Rocha and Filipa Serra Gaspar contributed to this report.

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