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Rich-Poor Divide Grows in Equatorial Guinea's Capital


With rising oil prices, oil exporters like the lightly-populated central African country of Equatorial Guinea, are awash with new revenue. Here, a new modern capital called Malabo II is being built, but many living in nearby slums without piped water or electricity feel left out. VOA's Nico Colombant reports on the growing divide between rich and poor in sub-Saharan Africa's third biggest oil producer.

On a hill overlooking the capital on the island of Bioko, construction workers dig into asphalt they are rearranging for a road that leads to a new bridge, next to a new stadium, conference center, government buildings, parliament and presidential palace.

But in a slum not far away, a woman is angry because the water pipe she usually accesses behind her shed is not working for a third straight day.

Clothes pile up in a muddy heap. Children run naked.

The woman refuses to give her name or a full interview.

She says it is obvious she has nothing at all. "Nothing, nothing," she repeats.

People are afraid to speak here. When giving accreditation to foreign journalists, officials at the Information and Tourism Ministry say slums are off limits, and that only tourist areas can be photographed.

The overall population here is estimated between 500,000 and one million, with most people still living in poverty, even though the country has one of the world's highest per-capita incomes.

A ruling party spokesman said foreigners like to exaggerate problems. He did not want to be recorded, but he explained he was very proud of all the roads that are being built across Equatorial Guinea.

The National Director of the Central African States Bank, Mariola Bindang Obiang, agreed to an interview. But she refused to give the percentage of money at the bank that comes from Equatorial Guinea.

"Equatorial Guinea has a very important percentage of the resources within the pool right now," she said. "But in terms of percentage, it is not wise for me to go ahead and speak about percentages."

The Equatorial Guinea fund is believed to represent more than half the total in the bank, when it was just a fraction of a percent before the oil boom started in the mid-1990s.

The bank serves the six central African countries that form the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa; the Central African Republic, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Republic of the Congo.

Obiang is more comfortable speaking about the government's long-term plan for development.

"The big challenge actually is how the oil revenue can get to everybody," she explained. " I think that is why the government had the conference that it had in Bata last year in November to make the development strategy for Equatorial Guinea up to 2020. I mean that document, the economic policy the government is going to follow, is very well described. The purpose of that is trying to get all sectors of the economy to get the resources that are created by the oil sector."

She says since the oil sector brings cash, but not very many jobs, the government has to figure out how to target more labor-intensive sectors for investment.

"What we will do now is see, since the conference took place in Bata, up to the following year, how what is described in this document will be implemented in the different sectors of the economy," she said. "I think in that way the revenues that are being produced in the oil sector will get to the rest of the population."

At a recent political rally in Malabo, the opposition complained that a small minority in power, starting with long-time President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, controls most of the oil wealth.

The opposition complains that government development programs are geared too much toward vanity projects, like preparing summits and sports events, rather than bringing water, education, and better health to the poorest areas.

But the ruling party won 99 out of 100 parliament seats and most seats in municipal bodies as well in recent elections, meaning the opposition has virtually no say or control on where and how the new oil money is being spent.

One foreign diplomat also complained that decisions on how to spend revenue are very state driven and not market-oriented.