Officials in Equatorial Guinea say voters overwhelmingly backed a constitutional referendum this week that limits presidents to two terms in office.
But the new law may not apply to the country's current leader of three decades, President Teodoro Obiang Mbasogo, Africa's longest serving head of state who, critics say, may now move to strengthen his family's hold on the oil-rich nation.
According to Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the president's son and minister of agriculture and forestry who was elected national director of a campaign backing the referendum, the constitutional reforms will “improve the country's representation within a democratic framework” by introducing presidential term limits, creating a bicameral legislature, and improving both human rights and the judiciary.
Some observers say it is not clear how these changes, which government officials say passed with 97 percent of the vote, will impact President Obiang's tenure.
"On the surface, the constitutional reforms don't look so bad," says Joseph Kraus of the U.S.-based non-profit Equatorial Guinea Justice. "The problem is when you get into the details of the actual reforms, and the details were never fully disclosed to the public."
The new constitution removes a maximum age limit for the president, allowing the 69-year-old Obiang, currently serving his fourth seven-year term since taking power in a 1979 coup, to run again after he turns 75. It also creates the post of vice president, which many people believe will go to his son, the 41-year-old government official who was recently appointed Equatorial Guinea's new deputy ambassador to the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO.
Son under investigation
Nguema Obiang Mangue is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which is attempting to seize more than $70 million in assets including property and luxury vehicles in California. The Obama Administration says the purchases are “inconsistent” with Mangue's annual salary of about $80,000 as agriculture minister, and are the result of "extortion, misappropriation, embezzlement, or theft of public funds" in sub-Saharan Africa’s third largest oil producer.
Government officials in Equatorial Guinea say Mangue's purchases involve no wrongdoing.
But Kraus says Mangue's well-known spending habits raise questions about the country's future and his fitness to lead. In a country where the African Development Bank says more than 70 percent of people live in poverty, Kraus says international pressure might make a difference.
"The government inside Equatorial Guinea does seem to be sensitive to its international image," he says. "It's gone to great lengths in the past couple of years to improve its international image. And so that presents an entry point or some leverage to try to push the government of Equatorial Guinea to actually spend more of the country's wealth on improving the lives of ordinary citizens."
Sunday's polling procedures questioned
Equatorial Guinea's single opposition member of parliament pulled his party's observers out of polling stations during the constitutional referendum Sunday because of what he says was the government's manipulation of the outcome.
New York-based Human Rights Watch says some polling places did not even have ballots available to register a "no" vote. Voters, observers and opposition officials told the human rights groups they saw people encouraged to vote publicly as well as to cast ballots on behalf of absent relatives.