The world’s longest-ruling dictator, boosted by vast oil wealth and strong US support, is expected to extend his 43 years in power in Equatorial Guinea this week when official results are announced in the latest election.
President Teodoro Obiang seized power by overthrowing his uncle in a military coup in 1979. Since then, he has jailed many of his opponents and ruthlessly maintained his grip over the small country on the west coast of Central Africa, despite corruption scandals and extreme economic inequality .
The 80-year-old President has won every election by an official margin of 93 per cent or more, and the election held on Sunday is likely to produce the same result, analysts say.
His government is propped up by US companies that have invested billions of dollars in its oil and gas industry, and by diplomatic support from US officials who are keen to prevent the country from falling into China’s sphere of influence. Washington was alarmed last year when reports suggested that China could use Equatorial Guinea as the site for its first naval base on the Atlantic Ocean.
Most of the country’s 1.5 million people live below the poverty rate of about US$2 per day, while the political elite are vastly wealthy. mr. Obiang’s family has become so rich from the country’s oil revenue that his son and vice-president, Teodorin, once famously purchased a crystal-covered glove, valued at US$275,000, that had belonged to the pop singer Michael Jackson.
Teodorin Obiang, who is considered the likely successor to his father, regularly flaunts his lavish lifestyle on Instagram, where he posts frequent photos of himself at European beach resorts or posing on expensive motorcycles and private jets.
He was convicted of embezzlement in France in 2017. Many of his assets – including luxury cars and mansions – were seized by authorities in Switzerland, France and the United States after corruption investigations in each of those countries. He was also subjected to British anti-corruption sanctions.
None of this seems to have deterred US officials, who continue to court him and his father. Earlier this month, Teodorin Obiang posted an Instagram video that showed him meeting the CIA’s deputy director, David Cohen, and other members of a visiting US delegation.
On Sunday, he tweeted photos that showed him casting a ballot in the election. He said he was extremely pleased by the “massive” turnout by voters, which he said demonstrated the “political maturity of the people.”
Critics, however, said the election was rigged. Human-rights activist Tutu Alicante, executive director of non-profit group EG Justice, said he had received reports of “flagrant violations” in the voting on Sunday and in the leadup to the election.
Many voters were intimidated by armed soldiers who were posted at the voting stations, while others were openly pressured into voting for the ruling party, Mr. Alicante told The Globe and Mail in an interview on Sunday.
Election administrators allowed some people to cast ballots on behalf of their entire families, or on behalf of relatives who live abroad, and some officials announced at voting stations that large groups had voted unanimously for the ruling party, he said.
“They’re voting for Obiang out of fear,” Mr. Alicante said. “In most of the country, the vote was cooked the day before the election.”
In the months leading up to the election, more than 100 lawyers, judges and civil-society activists were detained by the authorities, and several were reportedly killed or tortured.
While the administration of US President Joe Biden has often pledged to promote democracy worldwide, its support for the Obiang government has shown that it has other priorities in some countries, Mr. Alicante said.
“US foreign policy has not been dominated by the lofty goals of promoting democracy around the world or combating corruption, but rather by narrow economic and national-security interests,” he said.
“The United States government doesn’t want China building a military base in Equatorial Guinea, and so it’s willing to send delegations and bend over backwards. It’s afraid that, if it pushes too hard for democracy, Chinese and Russian companies will move in.”