African dictator hopes to change his image with welfare reform

The president of Equatorial Guinea, who has ruled the oil-rich west African nation for three decades, is seeking to recast his reputation as a corrupt, repressive leader in a more progressive light.

In a speech in Cape Town this week, the president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, said he would carry out reforms over the coming decade to ensure that his country's oil revenues would be used to benefit its impoverished people. He also promised to invite the International Red Cross to look into accusations of human rights violations in Equatorial Guinea.

When he submitted to a brief, rare questioning by journalists, Mr Obiang denied that large amounts of his country's oil wealth had been stashed in bank accounts abroad and defended his long rule, saying, "My country is democratic."

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Mr Obiang seized power in a coup in 1979. He won elections in 1996, 2002 and 2009 with at least 95 per cent of the vote.

He has now hired an American lobbyist who commands a fee of $1 million (663,550) a year - Lanny J Davis, who served as a special counsel to president Bill Clinton.

Mr Davis said he had told Mr Obiang that his margins of victory had made critics sceptical of the country's democracy. "I've kidded him he'd do better to win by 51 per cent than 98 per cent," Mr Davis said.

Obiang said his ten-year plan includes investing "substantial" oil revenues in public projects such as schools, hospitals and infrastructure. He said he will also invite the African Union to review and suggest reforms for the legal system and will bring in the Red Cross to assess the human rights situation.

He said he hoped the plan would "invite investors from across the globe to consider the exciting possibilities with us."

But Robert Palmer, a campaigner for London-based Global Witness, said the speech is an attempt to draw in investors.

"I think he's realised that his current behaviour is damaging the chances of Equatorial Guinea of attracting business," Mr Palmer said.

"These are vague claims with little detail on how he's going to implement them and, in some cases, they contradict previous actions of the government. By looking at all his past experience, we would be very sceptical about his government's commitment to these pledges."

Earlier this month, Global Witness criticised Mr Obiang for sponsoring a $300,000 Unesco prize bearing his name.

Critics have called the prize - for research aimed at "improving quality of life" - the height of hypocrisy for a country that has seen its infant mortality rise and its school enrolment decline in the past decade.

"I think Obiang is a brutal dictator who is desperately trying to launder his reputation," Mr Palmer said.

Mr Obiang's address at the development forum in South Africa also drew sharp criticism from one of the participants who appeared on the stage where he had spoken. Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former UN high commissioner for human rights, said it was inappropriate that Mr Obiang was given a platform at an event celebrating Africa's progress and the critical importance of honest leadership for the continent.

"I felt it was a contradiction in terms to have him here," she said.

Mr Davis said he agreed to represent Mr Obiang after meeting him in February in Equatorial Guinea, which has close ties to the US oil industry.

"He said, ‘I want to turn to the United States and make my country to be like the US in its values, its democracy.'"

Mr Davis said he advised Mr Obiang that he would need to follow promises of reform with action. After Mr Obiang left, a journalist asked Mr Davis what would happen now to political prisoners.

He replied: "If there are political prisoners and no substantive charges against them, they will be freed."

CELIA DUGGER in Cape town