MALABO – Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Africa’s longest-serving ruler, was poised Sunday to extend his 43 years in power in the oil-rich country amid accusations of voting irregularities from the opposition.
In previous elections, Obiang has never gotten less than 90% of the vote, and one of the two opposition candidates said Sunday that the ruling party appeared to be again committing electoral fraud.
Andres Esono told journalists that his party had been receiving complaints all day from across the Central African nation, with many voters saying they were forced to cast ballots publicly rather than in secret.
“What he is doing is massive fraud, even worse than on previous occasions,” Esono said of the 80-year-old incumbent.
Esono was one of only two candidates running against Obiang in Sunday's election. Fourteen of the country’s opposition parties joined an alliance with the authoritarian regime, which critics have long accused of intimidation, torture and corruption.
The incumbent president expressed optimism about the election's outcome after voting alongside his wife, Constancia Mangue de Obiang.
“I am sure that the victory belongs to the Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea,” he said.
In the streets of the capital, Malabo, Obiang's posters have flooded public spaces in recent weeks with the message: “Vote for the right way, vote for continuity." Only a handful of opposition posters could be seen.
At a final campaign event in Mongomo last week, the president shouted to the crowds: “Who's your papa?” He urged voters to keep him in power, warning of the risks of political upheaval.
“Some preach that there should be change,” Obiang said. “We have to see the changes that they want to produce. We do not know if they are for the benefit of the people, or if it is to create a catastrophic situation.”
Despite its oil and gas riches, Equatorial Guinea has a dramatic gap between its privileged ruling class and much of the population, who live mainly on subsistence farming. The Obiang family has long been accused of living in opulence and using money from state coffers to fund their lifestyle.
Obiang’s son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, known as Teodorin, has come to embody the regime’s excesses, purchasing everything from logging firms to a rap label to Michael Jackson memorabilia even as his father promoted him up the ranks to second vice president. Observers have speculated he is being groomed for succession.
A French court last year upheld Teodorin’s conviction for money laundering and embezzling millions of dollars in public money. The French court handed him a three-year suspended sentence, fined him 30 million euros and ordered property in France worth tens of millions of euros seized.
Obiang seized power in a 1979 coup, overthrowing the country's first president since independence from Spain in 1968. For the first years of his rule, Obiang headed a military dictatorship. He then oversaw a three-year transition to multiparty democracy that ended in 1993.
Since then, though, the robustness of the country’s democratic institutions has been undermined by the president’s eyebrow-raising election wins. After allegedly earning 99% of the vote in 1989, when the country was still a one-party state, he dipped only marginally to 97.8% in 1996, 97.1% in 2002, 95.7% in 2009 and 93.7% percent in 2016.
Critics say Obiang has built a system of corruption unmatched in Africa, forsaking an extraordinary opportunity to lift his country’s people out of poverty when oil deposits inflated the country’s gross domestic product by more than 5,000 percent.
Human rights groups say his regime has resorted to intimidation, torture and execution, going so far as to hunt down opponents and alleged coup-plotters in other countries and forcibly return them to Equatorial Guinea, where they were sentenced to death.