* HRW says elite benefiting, not population as a whole
* President in power since 1979
By David Lewis DAKAR, July 9 (Reuters) - Equatorial Guinea has taken mismanagement of oil wealth to new lows with billions of dollars of mainly U.S. investment benefiting the elite and not the population as a whole, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
The former Spanish colony has emerged from obscurity over the last decade to become Africa's fourth-largest oil producer, largely through U.S. firms, and is now attracting European companies seeking new gas reserves.
"Its government, however, is setting new low standards of political and economic malfeasance," New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report, which the watchdog attributed to four years of research.
"Billions of dollars in oil revenue have not translated into widespread economic benefits for the population or dramatic improvements in human rights, making Equatorial Guinea a classic example of an autocratic and opaque oil-rich state," said HRW.
President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has ruled the central African country since 1979.
Once an international pariah, during the 1990s Equatorial Guinea became an investment destination for the likes of Exxon Mobil (XOM.N), Marathon Oil Corp (MRO.N) and Hess Corp (HES.N) that has taken oil production to around 465,000 barrels per day.
Consequently, oil revenues for a country that has a population of some 500,000 had risen from just $3 million in 1993 to $190 million in 2000 and $4.8 billion in 2008, HRW said.
"Here is a country where people should have the per capita wealth of Spain or Italy, but instead they live in poverty worse than in Afghanistan or Chad," said Arvind Ganesan, HRW's director of the Business and Human Rights Program.
Obiang's government was not immediately available for comment but has previously defended its record, saying it is investing billions of dollars on infrastructure projects, including administrative buildings, hospitals, ports and roads.
Ganesan called on U.S. President Barack Obmama to hold the government accountable.
Although the ruling party has a strong grip on power -- holding 99 of the 100 seats in parliament -- HRW said the current system of government, which revolves around the personality of the president, was a constant source of unrest. (Editing by Daniel Magnowski)