MALABO: The discovery of oil and gas in the early 1990s has created a booming economy in Equatorial Guinea, once one of the world’s poorest countries but now often presented as a future “African Kuwait.” The small country with a population of some 600,000, ruled with an iron fist since 1979 by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, currently ranks as sub-Saharan Africa’s third crude oil producer, but the benefits have yet to trickle down.

For more than a decade it has enjoyed double digit economic growth and in 2006 official figures showed a surplus balance of payments of 540 million euros.

“Guinea is waking up. It’s an extraordinary example of economic development,” said French foreign aid minister Alain Joyandet, who has encouraged French companies to invest in the country.

“There has been a leap forward. Guinea up until now has been classed as a less advanced country (but) it is likely to come off the list in 2012,” said Kiari Liman-Tinguiri, the United Nations Development Programme representative.

In Malabo, on the island of Bioko, the city is in the grip of almost non-stop activity. Buildings are springing up, a motorway is being built around the capital and the airport is being expanded.

Elsewhere, Bata, the economic capital on the mainland, and other main towns are benefiting from similar investments.

“From the point of view of infrastructure, the country has made a terrific step foward. The road network is probably the best in Africa,” added Liman-Tinguiri.

The Chinese also appear to be investing heavily in Equatorial Guinea in everything from construction to road building and oil production, although no official figures are available.

Since a visit to Beijing in 2007, Obiang has presented China as the country’s principal development partner and evidence of the Chinese presence is clearly visible all over the capital.

But despite the country’s strong growth, the poor, in particular the marginalised Bubi ethnic group, have yet to share in the benefits.

Some 77 per cent of the population still struggles to make ends meet on less than a dollar a day, while the GDP is $16,000 per head. Life expectancy stands at 47 while under-five child mortality is the seventh worst in Africa.

Obiang’s regime has been accused of both human rights abuses and suppressing political opposition.

Critics say the president, from the Fang ethnic group, has established a personality cult around his leadership.

In the capital, his picture appears everywhere, not just in official buildings but also in private homes, bars and shops.

The president is equally omnipresent in the media. On television and radio his praises are sung constantly and his statements broadcast to the nation. The country’s few weekly and monthly print publications are equally lavish in their praise.

CDs of songs glorifying his regime circulate in the country as well as neighbouring Cameroon and Gabon.

No-one is compelled to display the president’s photograph but many do so out of fear, say critics of the ruling regime.

“Having a photograph is a way of protecting oneself,” said Juan Nzo, deputy secretary general of the only opposition party, the Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS).

The party has a lone deputy in parliament after the CPDS managed to win only one of 100 seats in legislative elections in May. It has described the elections as the “the most violent and manipulated” in history and accused the West of turning a blind eye to problems in the country because of its oil reserves.

Obiang seized power in a 1979 military coup, ousting his uncle Francisco Macias Nguema, whom he had shot.

Since then he has created a network of informers to cement his grip on power.

“Fear runs in the veins of Equatorial Guineans... The head of state says that everyone should be police,” said Nzo.

“Everyone is keeping checks on everyone,” added a villager from near the capital. “If you say something against the government or the president in public, someone ends up by repeating it,” the villager said.—AFP