A weekend referendum on constitutional changes that will allow Equatorial Guinea's president of three decades to pick his own successor was marred by intimidation and stuffed ballot boxes, a human rights group said Monday.
The constitutional changes apparently approved by voters also removed the maximum age limit of 75 for the presidency, a move critics say suggests President Teodoro Obiang Nguema will stay in power after his current term expires in 2016.
Under the changes, the 69-year-old would still retain significant political influence even if he leaves. The referendum also created a new vice president position, a job many believe is earmarked for Obiang's son.
The government said that with 60 percent of the votes tallied, 99 percent of voters had backed the referendum. Critics, though, said Sunday's vote was fraudulent. Government representatives could not be immediately reached for comment.
"The government claims that the constitutional reforms are designed to strengthen the country's democracy. Unfortunately, the tactics used in yesterday's vote demonstrate the hollowness of such rhetoric," said Joseph Kraus, program director at the Washington-based EG Justice group that promotes human rights in the tiny, oil-rich country.
Although the referendum introduces term limits on the presidency that permit two consecutive seven-year terms in office, it is unclear if Obiang would be free to serve two more terms after his current term expires. By that point he would be in his 80s.
Kraus also said that voters on Sunday in Equatorial Guinea complained of intimidation, with armed military personnel stationed inside voting stations. People also were allowed to cast ballots on behalf of family members not physically present at the polling station, he said. The opposition party withdrew its polling station monitors Sunday in protest.
Obiang has ruled Equatorial Guinea for 32 years since seizing power in a 1979 coup and it is considered among the most repressive regimes in Africa. The country's political opposition is small, consisting of only two political parties that are independent of the governing party.
Obiang's son, Teodorin Obiang Mangue, already has been named vice president of the ruling party, heightening speculation that the elder Obiang is attempting a father-to-son succession.
In October, U.S. Department of Justice officials revealed they are attempting to seize assets worth $70 million that the younger Obiang transferred to the United States and used to buy a Malibu mansion, a Gulfstream jet and $2 million worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia.
Equatorial Guinea was a backwater until American energy company Exxon Mobil discovered oil and gas there in 1994. U.S. companies continue to dominate the industry there but face growing competition. Most oil from the country, which produces billions of dollars in annual revenue, is exported to the United States.
Despite its newfound wealth, life for the vast majority of the country's 680,000 people remains a struggle and the majority live below the poverty line with tens of thousands having no access to electricity or clean water, according to U.N. and World Bank figures.