Equatorial Guinea’s President, Devout Roman Catholic Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has held power for more than three decades, was named the ceremonial head of the African Union, an appointment human rights groups said undermined the 53-nation bloc’s commitment to democracy.
Obiang’s election was announced by his predecessor Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika at a heads-of-state summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, today. Under AU rules, the bloc’s political leadership rotates annually between Africa’s five geographic regions.
“We accept our role with humility,” Obiang told the summit. “Africa must assume, more than ever, a leading role not just on the continent but in the international arena.”
Obiang has ruled sub-Saharan Africa’s fourth-biggest oil- producer since 1979, when he seized power from his uncle in a coup. He won a fourth term in elections in November 2009, securing more than 95 percent of the vote. Groups including Human Rights Watch said conditions weren’t in place for a free and fair contest, an allegation Obiang denies.
A 2004 U.S. Senate investigation into money laundering found Washington-based Riggs Bank was holding as much as $750 million in accounts controlled by Obiang, his family members or government officials. Obiang says he is unaware of any public funds being diverted from the country and that allegations made against his government and family are untrue.
“Obiang’s leadership of Equatorial Guinea has been disastrous,” New York-based Human Rights Watch said in an e- mailed statement yesterday. “For the more than 30 years that he has been in power, Equatorial Guinea has been plagued by appalling human rights violations and corruption,” with vast oil revenue being “diverted to fund lavish lifestyles for the small elite surrounding the president.”
Only 10 countries ranked below Equatorial Guinea on Transparency International’s 2010 list of global corruption perceptions. Last year, Equatorial Guinea was ejected from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, an organization of companies, governments and civil groups that aims to clean up the oil and mining industries, for failing to meet its guidelines.
Oil revenue has given Equatorial Guinea, with a population of about 840,000, Africa’s highest gross domestic product per capita. Even so, latest World Bank data shows average life expectancy is 52 years and 81 out of every 1,000 children die before the age of five.
The African Union and Africans, don’t deserve a leader “whose regime is notorious for abuses, corruption and a disregard for the welfare of its people,” Alioune Tine, president of the Dakar, Senegal-based African Assembly for Human Rights, said in an e-mailed statement today.
At a conference in Cape Town in June last year, Obiang committed his government to greater transparency on oil revenue, judicial independence and press freedom. He also pledged to invest billions of dollars in health and education.
Established in 2002 as a successor to the Organization of African Unity, the AU’s stated aims include achieving greater unity among member states, promoting peace, stability and development and raising living standards.