MALABO, Equatorial Guinea | AFP |
Equatorial Guinea’s tough President Teodoro Obiang Nguema seized power almost 37 years ago from a feared and ruthless uncle and has steered the tiny but now oil-rich nation with an iron glove.
Already Africa’s longest-serving leader, the 73-year-old looks set to win a fresh seven-year mandate in elections Sunday.
“I am the candidate of the people. Whoever does not vote for me is rejecting peace and opting for disorder,” Obiang told a scattered crowd at a campaign rally at the Malabo stadium.
Obiang came to power in the former Spanish colony in a 1979 coup against his uncle Macias Nguema, a fervent nationalist who found a tropical outlet for the ruthless methods of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco after independence in 1968.
Macias, a self-proclaimed sorcerer who collected skulls, had Nazi-style notions of ethnic purity. He ruled by fear, sparing few families in waves of killings and atrocities that provoked a mass exodus to neighbouring countries.
Obiang had his uncle tried in a cinema, strung up in a cage and shot by hired Moroccan soldiers, who later formed the backbone of his bodyguard.
The former putschist then began building omnipotent security services to monitor all aspects of public life under his personal authority.
‘Permanent contact with God’
Heading a country with few resources, unable at first to even afford a private jet, his fiery character alienated some of his peers who would patronise him at regional summits — until the discovery of offshore oil in the early 1990s.
But with investments by mostly American firms, the country rose from being a Gulf of Guinea backwater to sub-Saharan Africa’s third oil producer after Nigeria and Angola.
Riding high on petro-dollars, Obiang has been magnanimous with African leaders who once mocked him such as interim Central African Republic ruler Catherine Samba Panza who came to Malabo with a begging bowl before elections earlier this year.
The country has acquired a reputation as one of the world’s most corrupt, with NGOs pointing the finger at the ruling family.
Abroad, meanwhile, Obiang has come under fire for rights abuses from numerous NGOs and international organisations.
The president has also built up a personality cult, even allowing rumours of cannibalism.
In 2003, a state radio presenter described him as being “in permanent contact with God”, a leader “who can decide to kill without accounting to anyone and without going to hell”.
Though multi-party politics were introduced in 1991, Obiang has never officially been re-elected with less than 95 percent of the vote.
Anyone under 40 has never known any leader other than Obiang, whose poster goes up with new building projects.
Born on June 5, 1942 to a family of modest means, he is said to have been a shy almost retiring boy with a taciturn streak.
After attending a religious school, he joined the army which awarded him a scholarship to a military academy in Zaragoza, Spain, and a year after independence he was put in charge of troops.
He rose quickly through the ranks. A former comrade-in-arms called him “cunning”, saying “he knows how to turn a situation to his advantage even when you think there’s nothing in it for him”.
While Obiang maintains that his next mandate will be his last, his people see a family dynasty.
His playboy son Teodoro Obiang Mangue is second vice-president and has been given ever greater power in the ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea as well as in government, though France and the US Justice Department have targeted millions in allegedly ill-gotten gains.
“Equatorial Guinea is not a monarchy but a democratic state,” Obiang told Jeune Afrique news magazine this week. “If he succeeds in politics, there’s nothing I can do… It would be unfair if his talent went unrewarded.”