Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Picture: Dominic Favre

Equatorial Guinea’s authoritarian leader, Teodoro Obiang-Mbasogo, has signed up to the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) through which African leaders scrutinise each others’ governance performance - prompting debate about whether this was a high or low point for the mechanism’s credibility.

He became the 34th African leader to agree to be reviewed by his peers at the AU summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, signing on to the mechanism at a summit of the African Peer Review Forum which was also attended by President Jacob Zuma and some of the other leaders who have agreed to be reviewed.

Zuma presented a progress report on the implementation of the country’s national plan, which grew out of its own review under the APRM nearly a decade ago.

Obiang said that in joining the APRM, Equatorial Guinea “reaffirms its commitment and respect to the democratic principle and to good governance”.

He said in recent years the Equatorial Guinea had taken important measures for democracy, good governance, “very good economic management” and social development.

The country had also adopted a new constitution which created a bicameral parliament and defended the rights of the country’s people.

Obiang claimed both AU and UN observers had written reports judging the country’s elections last year as just, fair and transparent.

“We did not invite observers from outside Africa due to our experiences in the past that they present contradictions in their reports and do not truly reflect the elections.”

Obiang came to power in a coup in 1979, toppling his own uncle who was killed after he was ousted. Obiang has ruled the country with an iron fist, tolerating no political opposition, although over the past few years he has softened his enforcement of power.

With its huge oil wealth and tiny population, the West African state, which is partly on the island of Malabo and partly on the mainland, has reached one of the highest per capita incomes in Africa, but most of the population still lives in abject poverty as Obiang and his family are reputed to have siphoned off most of the oil revenue into offshore bank accounts. Veteran APRM expert Steve Gruzd, who heads the governance and APRM programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, agreed that Obiang signing up to the mechanism did raise doubts about the credibility of the APRM.

“But I prefer to see the glass as half-full,” he added, saying it was a sign of progress by the 11-year-old APRM that it had attracted a leader like Obiang.

“It shows some commitment by leaders like Obiang that they have agreed to subject themselves to scrutiny by their peers. The hope is that some of the experiences and criticisms of their peers will rub off on them.”

Gruzd noted that the 17 APRM reports into other countries which had so far been completed had been robust and frank analyses.

“Once you let the genie out of the bottle, it is difficult to put it back,” he continued, saying Obiang would be unable to control the consequences now that he had agreed to be reviewed.

Paul-Simon Handy of the Institute for Security Studies agreed with Gruzd, saying, “Obiang may not realise what he has let himself in for”. - The Mercury