, MALABO, Nov 17 – Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Africa’s longest-serving leader, is a survivor who wrote his legend in blood but now hopes new-found oil wealth can buy him a better image.
The demise of Libya’s Moamer Kadhafi last month nudged Obiang, only 69, to the top of Africa’s seniority list. Angola’s Jose Eduardo Dos Santos took power just a month after him, in September 1979.
After 32 years of bloodstained rule earned him a reputation as one of the continent’s most ruthless dictators, Obiang, his hand firmly on the tap of what is now sub-Saharan Africa’s third oil producer, wants to spruce up his legacy.
Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony as large as Belgium wedged between Gabon and Cameroon just above the equator, overwhelmingly approved a new constitution Obiang trumpets as the advent of democracy, official results showed Wednesday.
Interior Minister Clemente Engonga Nguema Onguene said on national television that 97 percent of voters backed the proposals. He put turnout at 91 percent.
“Obiang wants his country, long ignored or despised, to acquire a diplomatic status that matches its new financial weight,” said one diplomat.
The new constitution would cap presidential terms to two seven-year mandates but its retroactive nature is unclear. If the document did not exclude the terms already served by Obiang, he could stay in power until 2030 if he serves two more terms after his current one expires in 2016.
He has never scored less than 95 percent in elections slammed as flawed since introducing multi-partyism in 1991.
Obiang’s reign started in bloodshed when he had the country’s first president — his “tribal uncle” Francisco Macias Nguema — executed after staging a trial in a cinema because the country had no proper courtroom.
Macias, who claimed to be a sorcerer and collector of skulls, was dangled in a cage above a crowd and eventually sentenced to death 101 times.
His nephew hired Moroccan soldiers — Moroccans still form the backbone of his bodyguard — to shoot the despot.
“I had the power to pardon but I had to watch popular reaction. Everyone was mad at him and it was impossible for me to pardon him, nobody would have understood,” Obiang wrote in his autobiography “My Life for My People.”
In power, he built a personality cult, describing himself as “El Jefe” (the boss in Spanish) and sometimes assigning himself more creative monikers such as “Gentleman of the great island of Bioko, Annobon and Rio Muni.”
In 2003, a state radio presenter described him as being “in permanent contact with God” and a leader who “can decide to kill without accounting to anyone and without going to hell.”
Obiang has allowed accusations of cannibalism to spread — to deter his enemies, some say — but his aura of ruthlessness was dented when he was reported to suffer from prostate cancer a few years ago.
His lean frame is ubiquitous in the streets of Malabo, featuring on billboards announcing new infrastructure projets, on T-shirts and umbrellas.
The bespectacled and austere-looking Obiang has left the headlines to his son and designated heir Teodoro Obiang Mangue, nicknamed Teodorin and best known for his love of champagne and his relationships with US rap artists.
Last month, the US Justice Department targeted Teodorin’s assets, including a Malibu mansion that has its own golf course, a $38.5 million jet and one million dollars in Michael Jackson memorabilia, including the pop icon’s white crystal covered Bad Tour glove.
Obiang last month appointed his playboy eldest son deputy envoy to UNESCO, apparently in retaliation for the UN agency’s second thoughts on approving a science prize named after him.
The award for research into AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria was meant to crown his international respectability drive.
Rights groups continue to condemn serious abuses and point out that most Equatorial Guineans live in squalor when oil revenue has given the country one of the world’s highest GDP per capita ratios.
Obiang’s oil wealth has muffled criticism from Western governments — he was warmly received at the White House in 2009 — and the small country of 700,000 now has 30 embassies worldwide.
Wikileaks recently released a cable in which a US diplomat described Obiang — who until earlier this year had a hefty contract with a former Bill Clinton adviser for an image makeover — and his leadership as “stern but mellowing”.
A devout Roman Catholic, Obiang is married to Constancia and has another son, Gabriel Nguema Lima, who has served as vice minister of energy and mines.
He studied at the military academy of Zaragoza in Spain before his country’s 1968 independence.