DAKAR (Reuters) - Equatorial Guinea held a referendum on constitutional changes on Sunday which rights groups said were an attempt by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo to strengthen his 32-year grip on power in the central African oil producer.
Obiang’s government has billed the reform as a democratic advance, highlighting a clause which will put future limits on the number of terms a president can serve. The government website contains a short three-point summary of the changes.
But New York-based Human Rights Watch and local group EG Justice said the full text of the proposals includes measures such as removing an existing age limit that would have stopped 69-year-old Obiang running for a new term after the age of 75.
Other changes include the creation of a post for a vice-president who would be appointed at Obiang’s discretion and would assume power once he decides to step down, and the granting of senatorial immunity to Obiang once out of office, they said.
“The government demonstrates once again its willingness to suppress citizens’ rights at any cost,” EG Justice’s Tutu Alicante said in the statement. “Secrecy and heavy-handed government tactics are not recipes for democracy.”
The statement said the full text was not widely available to voters in Equatorial Guinea. It contained a link to social publishing site scribd.com with a Spanish-language draft of the constitution with amendments to articles 33, 35 and 85 covering the vice-president post, age limit and immunity.
It said the text had been posted there by an unnamed opposition solidarity group. here
Efforts to contact the Washington-based public relations company representing Equatorial Guinea by telephone and email on Sunday were not answered.
The ousting of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi means Obiang is now the longest serving leader in Africa, with one year more service than Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. His country produces around 240,000 barrels of oil per day.
The U.S. Justice Department said last month it would seek to seize almost $71 million in allegedly corrupt assets from Obiang’s son Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, including a $30 million home in Malibu.
Global graft watchdog Transparency International ranked Equatorial Guinea among the world’s most corrupt countries in its 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, ranking it 168th out of 178 countries in efforts to tackle graft.
The former Spanish colony was ranked last year among “the worst of the worst” countries in an annual survey by democracy group Freedom House of political rights and civil liberties.
Equatorial Guinea says it is working to build stability and democracy in central Africa.