World News

Equatorial Guinea maps out election timetable

MALABO (Reuters) - Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema has announced a timetable for elections culminating in presidential polls which will test the stability of sub-Saharan Africa’s third-biggest oil producer.

Obiang dissolved parliament in a decree published late on Friday and said municipal and legislative elections would be held in the central African country on May 4, and a presidential vote in 2010.

The polls will test the stability of a nation long seen as one of the most authoritarian in Africa, with hardly any opposition politicians in parliament.

Legislative elections had originally been scheduled for 2009 but the government said the decision to move them forward by a year and hold them alongside municipal polls would save money.

They are likely to be closely watched by oil investors from Europe and the United States, particularly given that Washington -- which has in the past described Obiang as a “good friend” -- wants the region to supply a quarter of its oil imports by 2015.

Obiang seized power in a 1979 coup in which he killed his uncle and although he has presided over Equatorial Guinea’s transformation into a significant crude producer, much of the country remains mired in poverty. He is expected to stand again in the 2010 presidential election.

Massive offshore discoveries over the past decade have boosted oil production from virtually nothing to some 380,000 barrels per day, ranking it behind only Nigeria and Angola among African producers.

But despite having one of the world’s fastest growing economies in recent years, the oil bonanza has yet to reach the people, and the country languishes in the lower ranks of U.N. development indices.

The authorities thwarted a coup bid in 2004 led by former British special forces soldiers. The plot hit world headlines after Mark Thatcher, son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was arrested on suspicion of bankrolling it.

Thatcher denied any involvement in the plan and eventually agreed a plea bargain with the authorities in South Africa.

Former British army officer Simon Mann, his hands and feet shackled, was flown last month to Equatorial Guinea to face charges of plotting to overthrow Obiang. He is awaiting trial.

Writing by Nick Tattersall