* Obiang says nation’s oil wealth is “blessing not curse”
* Rejects portrayals of his rule as secretive autocracy
* “They call me dictator”, longtime president complains
* He flatly denies reports of poverty or repression
By Pascal Fletcher
MALABO, Feb 4 (Reuters) - Equatorial Guinea wants international investors and financial institutions to help open up and diversify its energy-dependent economy, its president said on Tuesday, while insisting the nation’s oil and gas wealth was a “blessing and not a curse”.
President Teodoro Obiang Nguema told a small group of foreign journalists in a rare interview that the small African nation’s reputation in the West as a secretive autocracy was undeserved, although he recognised his government’s failure to provide hard economic and social statistics for analysis.
“They call me a dictator,” Obiang, 71, who seized power in a 1979 coup and is Africa’s longest-serving ruler, said in a conversation with correspondents from Reuters, CCTV, Russia Today and Deutsche Welle held in the capital Malabo.
Rejecting reports from human rights groups of political repression and from development agencies of pervasive poverty despite oil riches, Obiang acknowledged his nation was “not all roses” but said it faced a campaign of negative publicity.
“One thorn that we have is that the international community doesn’t want to understand what we are doing in this country,” he said. He pointed to a massive government infrastructure programme in recent years that he said had built not only roads, ports and airports but also schools and hospitals both on Bioko Island and on the Rio Muni mainland.
Obiang spoke on the sidelines of an investors’ conference hosted by his government, which is seeking to involve foreign entrepreneurs in a diversification drive to develop non-energy sectors of Africa’s No. 3 oil and gas producer.
Big hydrocarbons discoveries from the mid-1990s onwards have given Equatorial Guinea and its small population of under 800,000 people the highest GDP per capita in Africa - estimated at over $25,000 per inhabitant.
But transparency advocates say that figure is skewed by the fact that wealth has filled the pockets of a tiny ruling elite that includes the president and his family.
Obiang and his government deny this and say they have been using the country’s oil and gas revenues to haul its people out of the chronic poverty and underdevelopment they suffered for a decade following independence from Spain in 1968.
“When my government came to power, the country was the worst in the whole world, the whole world,” said Obiang, who in 1979 overthrew his uncle, dictator Francisco Macias Nguema.
“There are some who say that having oil is a curse, but I say, ‘no, it’s a blessing’,” added the president, speaking in a meeting room in a large, Chinese-built conference centre.
According to the “oil curse” theory, underdeveloped countries which subsequently discover huge mineral wealth often suffer severe economic and social distortions in which the benefits of the new-found riches fail to reach the majority of the population, sometimes leading to conflict.
Obiang said his government recognised the nation’s oil and gas might not last forever in a fluctuating global market, and for this reason now looked to open up to foreign investment sectors such as farming, petrochemicals, mining and tourism.
“We can’t just see ourselves as self-sufficient in our own development, we want international support,” Obiang said, making clear this included seeking not just private capital but also more cooperation with global financial bodies like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
Foreign diplomats, delegates and investors at the Malabo investment conference welcomed what they said appeared to be a new spirit of openness and reform expressed by economic ministers in Obiang’s government, who pledged to work to improve the climate for doing business in Equatorial Guinea.
“I think there is a willingness to address what needs to be done,” Jon Shields, the IMF’s chief of mission for Equatorial Guinea, said in one of the conference sessions on Tuesday.
But Shields and other participants said an accurate analysis of the nation’s real economic and social situation was almost impossible in the complete absence of reliable data from the government on GDP, imports and the balance of payments.
Obiang acknowledged that one of his government’s biggest weaknesses was its failure to provide up-to-date statistics and he said he had requested IMF and World Bank help to do this.
But he flatly rejected portrayals of Equatorial Guinea as a repressive poster child of the “oil curse”, saying: “The country is not being shown for what it is”.
He disputed that poverty existed in Equatorial Guinea, saying he preferred to use the term “shortages”.
“Even in the big countries like the United States, there are poor people, in Britain, in France, in Spain, there are poor people,” Obiang said, although he admitted a shortage of skilled professionals was a major brake to Equatorial Guinea’s development, but the government was working to solve this.
In a parliamentary election held in May last year, the president’s Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) announced it had won all but two seats. The vote was denounced as fraudulent and illegal by the main Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS) opposition movement.
Obiang told the reporters on Tuesday that persistent allegations by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that political freedoms were not being respected were “sensationalist campaigns to tarnish the image of Equatorial Guinea”.
“I think there is total freedom of expression, there has never been repression in that sense,” he said, a statement at odds with press watchdog reports that rank Equatorial Guinea among the world’s 10 worst for media freedoms.
“We have the acceptance of the Guinean people ... What I don’t understand is that when my government is doing important things, why does it have to face this negative press?”
Editing by Mark Heinrich