The oil boom in Equatorial Guinea has done little to reduce abject poverty or improve the livelihood of its citizens, even though it creates economic growth of more than 40 percent per year. Analysts also worry about recent deals the former Spanish colony is making to supply Zimbabwe with oil on credit, and whether its oil industry could cause violence. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from our regional bureau in Dakar.
Equatorial Guinea is Africa's third-biggest oil producer.
Despite a population of less than 500,000 people and a boom that started in the mid 1990s, oil riches have not yet changed standards of living for most. Life expectancy remains less than 50 years. Unemployment is more than 30 percent.
The oil industry offers jobs mostly to foreigners.
Freedom of speech and political opposition are stifled. Human rights activists say jails are notorious for torture.
A lecturer at the Spanish Open University, Augustin Velloso, says the benefits of oil have had few trickle down effects.
"These changes are only for the benefit of the oil industry, for the oil companies and people working for them. You have to take into account that not many Equatorial Guinean people work in the fields, except for covering menial jobs," said Velloso.
He says infrastructure spending goes first and foremost to help wealthy foreigners.
"All the infrastructure, and the buildings, and the reforms that have been carried out are devoted to expatriates, foreigners, for example, Americans, or Filipinos, or from England, or some other places, but not specifically designed for the benefit of the whole population," he added.
The president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, in power since overthrowing his uncle in 1979, has bought mansions for himself and his son, possible successor Teodorin, in the United States.
Inside the country, Velloso says the government is planning to destroy a main slum in the capital to make way for a nice area for foreign oil workers.
"It is a neighborhood made up of many, many houses, made of pieces of wood and things like that," he continued. "This is going to be removed to make space, clean and open space, for new buildings. But these new buildings will be inhabited only by western people who can afford to pay. So where will all these people going to be housed? Nobody knows. Most probably they will just be expelled and they will probably just have to fetch for themselves."
Recently, Zimbabwe's long-standing President Robert Mugabe said Equatorial Guinea was going to supply his country with crude oil at favorable terms. He said his government would only have to pay after three months.
Analyst Ian Gary with Oxfam America says this is probably because Zimbabwe recently arrested alleged mercenaries bound for Equatorial Guinea.
"There have been connections in the news regarding Zimbabwe's arrest in the last couple of years of alleged coup plotters who were allegedly planning to try to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea," said Gary. "The relationship between the government of Zimbabwe and the government of Equatorial Guinea appears close."
Gary says governments which base their authority on oil wealth are becoming more and more powerful in Africa.
"Those countries are far outnumbered by those countries in sub-Saharan Africa that are oil importers, and who suffer price shocks on their economy, on transportation that people use every day because of the rise in oil prices," he added. "So certainly countries like Equatorial Guinea would have leverage that they can use vis- a-vis other African countries because of their oil wealth."
Unlike Nigeria or Angola, Equatorial Guinea has yet to see any major violence surrounding its oil trade.
But Velloso says there could be more coup attempts. Equatorial Guinea has a habit of selling future oil exploitation rights, what are called booty futures, and these can be used to incite agitators as well to promise mercenaries future oil revenues.
"There has already been several attempts, to expel and to overthrow [President] Obiang from power," he said. "But at the end of the day, there is not widespread violence. The only violence is the violence from the government on the population. You have to take into account that almost a quarter of the population is living in exile. But a social revolution, or civil war or something like that, there is none at the moment."
No one from the government was available to discuss the effects of the oil sector.
President Obiang has said he is building his country with oil wealth, and that improvements are being made on a daily basis. He says Equatorial Guinea is working toward becoming a Gulf of Guinea maritime hub, as well as a major supplier of natural gas. He says key priorities also include developing schooling, local farming and health centers in poor areas.