, MALABO, Nov 13 – Equatorial Guineans voted Sunday in a referendum on a new constitution — condemned by the opposition as a charade — that would limit presidential terms to two.
“Voting has begun and is proceeding well,” Information Minister Jeronimo Osa Osa Ecoro told AFP after polls opened at 8:00 am (0700 GMT).
While billed as a move to strengthen the small oil state’s democracy, the text does not make clear whether President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Africa’s longest-serving leader, will have to step down when his term ends in 2016.
Obiang, who currently chairs the African Union, is on an offensive to win himself a clean bill of health on the international scene and reverse his country’s reputation as one of Africa’s most corrupt and autocratic.
“Obiang wants his country, long ignored or despised, to acquire a diplomatic status that matches its new financial weight,” said one diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Equatorial Guinea, which has a population of around 700,000, struck oil off its Atlantic coast in the early 1990s and has become sub-Saharan Africa’s third biggest producer.
Obiang, 69, is currently serving his fourth seven-year term since he seized power in 1979, having won a first presidential vote in 1989.
During the coup he had his uncle, the former Spanish colony’s first president, executed by firing squad.
The regime says the new constitution would also create a position of vice president, impose more checks and balances on the executive, improve the judicial system and ensure better protection of civic rights.
“This is a democratic milestone,” Information Minister Ecoro said ahead of the vote. “President Obiang is carrying out reforms to bring sounder economic policies and more democracy to the country’s governance.”
But opposition leader Placido Mico has decried a lack of consultation ahead of the vote.
“No one has seen the text, not the cabinet or any official body,” he said. “It was not studied in parliament. We are submitting a text to a referendum that no one has seen. It’s an invisible text.”
The opposition also charges that Obiang’s 41-year-old playboy son Teodoro Obiang Mangue, reviled for his lavish lifestyle, is being groomed for the new vice presidency and eventually to succeed his father.
Nicknamed Teodorin, he is best known for his love of sports cars and champagne and his $31 million home in Malibu, California.
Mico, the sole opposition lawmaker in Equatorial Guinea’s 100-seat parliament, said: “Most sources suggest that Teodorin is tipped to succeed” Obiang.
He dismissed the proposed reforms as “lies” intended to “further secure Obiang and his family’s dictatorship and pave the way for a hereditary succession.”
Mico also noted a provision of the proposed text according to which the newly created state council can only be headed by a former president.
“How many former presidents do we have in this country?” Mico asked.
Polls were to close at 6:00 pm. Some 300,000 people are eligible to vote, with more than half of the 1,500 polling stations in the capital Malabo.