Equatorial Guinea _ a violent land of coups, petrodollar wealth and killer poverty _ is holding a presidential election Sunday that its leader of 30 years says he will win by more than the 97 percent garnered in the last widely criticized vote.
The vote to reinstall Teodoro Obiang Nguema will be hard to judge since journalists have been unable to get visas, and African observers must be escorted by government employees and must not make "disparaging remarks," according to a presidential decree.
Western governments, meanwhile, are accused of turning a blind eye to corruption and repression, their eyes firmly fixed on the West African nation's abundant oil and gas reserves.
"Elections here have become a game," said Dr. Wenceslao Mansogo Alo, human rights representative of the main opposition Convergence for Social Democracy.
Obiang has announced that he will win more than the 97.1 percent garnered in the 2002 election.
"I am the people's candidate and I don't see anyone who can go against the will of the people," Obiang, 67, said at a rally Sunday.
A news release from one of two U.S. lobbying firms employed by the Obiang administration said the country has "undertaken an ambitious effort to ensure an open election process."
"The government of Equatorial Guinea is committed to holding fair and democratic elections. As part of our reform efforts we aim to ensure all voices are heard," the release quoted Equatorial Guinea's ambassador to the United States, Purificacion Angue Ondo, as saying.
The United States, though, called the 2002 vote "seriously flawed" and few doubt Obiang will win again.
"We feel isolated and disappointed because we are doing what little we can while those who have interests in this country should be putting pressure on this regime; countries like the United States and the European Union have the power to intervene with this dictatorship," Mansogo said.
American company Exxon Mobil was first to discover oil in Equatorial Guinea in 1994 and U.S. companies continue to dominate the industry there but face growing competition.
Equatorial Guinea's per capita income has ballooned to about $31,000 a year, on a par with former colonizer Spain and making it the richest nation in sub-Saharan Africa.
Yet, with a small population of just 600,000, life for most Equato-Guineans has become harsher: Some 60 percent struggle to survive on less than $1 a day. The U.N. Children's Fund says child mortality has increased and a third of children never complete primary school.
The average citizen is unlikely to live beyond 50, yet someone in Brazil _ with an average annual income of less than $10,000 _ can expect to live to 72.
"It's a scandal," said political analyst Paul-Simon Handy of the South African Institute for Security Studies. "Only some 30 to 40 percent of the population has access to clean water and electricity."
Meanwhile, the government boasts of multimillion-dollar investments in roads and other infrastructure.
The country's ambassador to the United States this week had an expensive U.S. lobbying firm distribute a letter and a "Facts versus Fiction" sheet around Capitol Hill to try to counter criticisms about corruption.
Angue Ondo quoted selectively from various reports, including one in March from the International Monetary Fund that says the country has "taken steps to manage effectively its oil reserves and the income derived from it."
But the same report notes that "77 percent of the population fell below the poverty line in 2006, a strikingly high rate of poverty."
Angue Ondo's letter did not address allegations of corruption brought by Global Witness, the British group devoted to fighting corruption in natural resources. This month, the group produced documents indicating that an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and Immigration and Customs Department shows Obiang's favorite son transferred about $75 million into U.S. banks between 2005 and 2007.
The money reportedly bought a $36 million private jet, a $35 million Malibu mansion, a custom-built speedboat and a fleet of expensive fast cars. The son, Teodorin, has reported earning $5,000 a month as a Cabinet minister.
Some 290,000 voters are registered, with Obiang challenged by four rivals led by the Convergence party's Placido Mico. In parliamentary elections last year, Mico won the only opposition seat in the 100-member legislature.
Mansogo, the opposition official, said harassment, attacks and unequal access to state-controlled media already have made the presidential election unfair. He noted that one young activist was jailed after being arrested by soldiers for putting up opposition posters. Another campaigner was hospitalized after he was attacked with machetes, he said.
Mansogo said the country is "an island of torture and suffering that has never known a day of freedom."
There is no way to know what will happen during the vote count: The government has not published a voters' roll, and the National Electoral Commission is headed by the minister of interior and loaded with Obiang appointees.
Out of the picture in Sunday's election are a slew of exiled citizens who have voluntarily or forcibly left, including a government-in-exile in Spain.
Equatorial Guinea won its independence from Spain in 1968. Francisco Macias Nguema was elected president, set up a single-party state and declared himself president for life. The U.S. State Department says his repressive rule "led to the death or exile of up to one-third of the country's population."
In 1979, Obiang became the leader in a palace coup after which Macias was publicly executed. Opposition parties were allowed in 1991, but Obiang and a clique from his family and majority tribe maintain a grip on power.
Obiang has survived attempts to oust him, including a foreign-funded coup attempt foiled in 2004 and a seaborne attack on his presidential palace last February.