The 2015 Africa Cup of Nations tournament kicks off in Equatorial Guinea on Saturday. Critics say the government wants to use the event to make people forget about poverty and human rights violations in the country.
The government of Equatorial Guinea says it is confident that everything is ready for the opening of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. The small central African country stepped in as host of the tournament after initial host Morocco declined in November for fear of the Ebola epidemic rampant in West Africa.
Equatorial Guinea had, alongside Gabon, already hosted the soccer bonanza in 2012. However, Equatorial Guinea's 800,000 inhabitants will organize the 2015 tournament alone.
"Of course the regime in Malabo is trying to improve the country's image abroad," says Victor Nogueira of Amnesty International. The rights group is one of many voices that have consistently criticized the government of Equatorial Guinea for massive human rights violations.
'Repressive, dictatorial regime'
"This is a very repressive, dictatorial regime that continously attacks the opposition," Nogueira told DW in an interview. "The way the justice system works in the country is very reprehensible. There are extrajudicial executions, freedom of the press and freedom of expression are suppressed."
Amnesty International has in recent years complained that opposition politicians are arbitrarily arrested, detained without trial and tortured. Political prisoners have in some cases been denied urgent medical treatment.
According to information received by Amnesty, at least four prisoners were executed in March 2014. Two weeks later, the government officially suspended the death penalty, to meet the conditions for accession to the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP).
Abject poverty despite oil and gas reserves
On paper, Equatorial Guinea is one of the richest countries in Africa thanks to its huge oil and gas reserves. Ironically, poverty and inequality are rife amongst the population. The country's elite has been accused of diverting revenues from the export of raw materials to private accounts.
The 2013 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index ranked the country 163 out of 177. That made Equatorial Guinea one of the twenty most corrupt countries in the world.
"Thanks to its oil wealth, the country has a very high per capita income compared to other average African states, but at the same time, poverty and inequality in the country is very high," Nogueira said. According to the rights activist, the fact that citizens of Equatorial Guinea (which gained independence from Spain in 1968) have not benefited from the natural resources, means they shouldn't expect anything from the Africa Cup of Nations.
Football as tool to boost image
In an interview with DW, the chairman of the Association of Portuguese Non-governmental Organizations, Pedro Krupenski, said he believes President Obiang wants to use the Africa Cup of Nations to boost his image. "Football championships in Africa are a wonderful opportunity to deliver a good picture."
Krupenski also said Africa's biggest sporting event provides the opportunity to bring to light the less glamorous reality of the country to a global public. "The Africa Cup of Nations could well be a door opener, so the desperate human rights situation in the country is known."
Equatorial Guinea is one of the countries least easy to enter for international journalists. However, for sporting events such as the Africa Cup of Nations, numerous visas were granted to reporters and sports commentators.
Amnesty International's Nogueira hopes the journalists will not only report on the goals scored. "It is clear that there will be restrictions, but if the journalists are really interested in these issues, they could certainly also report on the less visible aspects of the country."