© AP, Jan 22, 2012

Football masks Equatorial Guinea's 'harsh reality'

MALABO, Equatorial Guinea(AP) Over the next three weeks, stars like Chelsea's Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure of Manchester City will showcase their talents at Africa's premier tournament in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

For the tiny central African nation of Equatorial Guinea, co-hosting the African Cup of Nations is an opportunity to show the world its rapid progress after just over a decade of development fueled by an oil boom.

However, the football fanfare masks some underlying problems.

The country is locked in a ''harsh reality of repression and grinding poverty,'' said Daniel Bekele, Africa director of Human Rights Watch, who believes that the country's new luxury developments are disguising the true picture faced by Equatorial Guinea's poor.

Evidence of such development is everywhere, kickstarted by the discovery of oil in 1994. Planes arriving in the capital Malabo fly over a sprawling plant on the coast - testimony to the more than 300,000 barrels produced per day. Most goes to the United States.

A modern highway cuts through the jungle. Cranes and hard-hatted workers pepper the roadside as multistory government ministries, hotels and apartment blocks replace the once-thick vegetation. Banks and oil companies are also here.

Offices for the Bank of the Central African States are rising out of the undergrowth. Mobil has a block taking shape near a major turnpike. Before 1994, this country of less than 700,000 people on the edge of Africa was a backwater.

And yet, poverty is as obvious as the multimillion dollar construction projects.

Just off the highway, a rickety neighborhood of dusty streets lurks on the outskirts of the old town.

The headquarters of the country's oil company, Gepetrol, is just over the horizon. It's a symbol of how the wealth has yet to dribble through to the poor.

Democracy is also something the people of Equatorial Guinea don't have, according to international observers.

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasongo has ruled since 1979 - when he seized power in a coup - and his regime is considered among the most repressive in Africa.

Elections are widely seen as ''flawed,'' according to the CIA's World Factbook, which also lists unemployment at more than 20 percent.

''I don't like to vote,'' said student and waitress Ernestina Pepul, who will work at the Malabo stadium during the Cup of Nations. ''It doesn't matter whose name you tick, the result is always the same and the same person always wins.''

Against this backdrop, Africa's top football tournament kicked off on Saturday in the port city of Bata, the country's commercial capital. The Equatorial Guinea team - the lowest ranked at the tournament - produced a surprise to beat Libya 1-0 in the opening game.

At the other end of Africa's football rankings, the event also has continental powerhouse Ivory Coast, which plays in Malabo, and its highly-paid stars based in Europe, like Drogba and brothers Yaya and Kolo Toure.

However, the wealth of the elite in Equatorial Guinea dwarfs that of the footballers.

Last year, U.S. Department of Justice officials said they were attempting to seize assets worth $70 million that Obiang's son, Teodorin Obiang Mangue, transferred to the United States. He used it to buy a Malibu mansion, a Gulfstream jet and $2 million worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia.

Ordinary life is a struggle for regular people. The majority live below the poverty line and tens of thousands have no access to electricity or clean water, say U.N. and World Bank figures.

The people selling fruit, dried nuts and flags in markets near the Bata stadium don't see much of the billions of dollars in annual revenue the oil brings in. Many of them live in shacks.

And yet across the road from the stadium around a dozen gleaming new apartment complexes have been built. They appeared empty and only there to hide the shanty towns behind them.

''The government of Equatorial Guinea hopes that the recently completed luxury hotels, golf resorts, and shiny monuments will disguise the grinding poverty that dominates the lives of most people in the oil-rich nation. They must not be allowed to get away with this deception,'' Tutu Alicante, executive director of EG Justice, a non-governmental organization focused on improving transparency in his native Equatorial Guinea said.

It all raises serious doubts about whether co-hosting a major international tournament is the most appropriate path to modernization.

Bekele said these events can be a way ''to charm foreign visitors and try to impress the media, but these are superficial and don't withstand scrutiny.''

In a report on the country, the nonprofit group slated Obiang, the president, for misspending his country's oil wealth on developments for the country's elite and foreign visitors, citing a $77 million presidential guesthouse and $830 million convention center and the resort complex built near Malabo to host the African Summit in 2011 as examples.

There was a brand new villa for each of Africa's presidents for the summit with a gourmet chef and a private elevator leading to a suite overlooking a mile-long artificial beach, sculpted especially for the visiting leaders.

The Human Rights Watch report says the total spent on hosting the African Cup of Nations is unknown, though both Malabo and Bata have been ''beautified.''

Intimidation of journalists was also criticized, including the case of an Associated Press photographer who was taken to a police station for taking photos in a public market in Malabo. She was only released after agreeing to remove the images from her camera.

For Carmelo Modu, who has combined his job as government minister for telecommunications with a role as the tournament's marketing and venues director, the Cup of Nations is there to showcase progress.

''Basically, this is a whole country that is under construction,'' he said. ''We thought this was a good opportunity to show the world what we are trying to do.

''Equatorial Guinea is a small country and this is a major event for us,'' he added. ''This is a big opportunity to communicate where we are and we are hoping for a big knock-on effect on investment.''

The emphasis on raising the country's profile also meant organizers hoped to avoid damaging safety lapses. Thousands of fans forced their way into the stadium complex ahead of the first game after a rush led police to open the outer gates. Tear gas was also used.

Not much was expected of ''Nzalang Nacional,'' Equatorial Guinea's team, but that might change now after the win over Libya.

Last week, Isidoro Obaga was leaning on railings under the shadow of the Malabo stadium.

Obaga, a police officer, was in charge of a handful of men looking after security at the 40,000-capacity venue in the run-up to the tournament. A couple of his colleagues were taking a break from the sweltering sun, lying under a flight of concrete steps.

Obaga screwed up his face when asked to name one of his country's players and laughed when asked about the team's chances. ''No chance,'' he said. ''And anyway, I support Ivory Coast.

''It's going to be good,'' he added. ''Everybody here is excited and proud - hopefully people from outside will know more about Equatorial Guinea because of this tournament.''


Mark Walsh reported from Malabo and Bata.

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