By Estelle Shirbon

Malabo - Marisa knows she is living in Africa's new oil-rich Eldorado but that hasn't helped her find the cash to buy shoes for her six children.

Like many in Equatorial Guinea, a tiny central African backwater where large offshore deposits of crude have brought sudden wealth, Marisa is as poor as she was before the oil boom.

"My life hasn't changed," said the 41-year-old, who scrapes a living from selling dried fish by the side of the road on the outskirts of Malabo, the capital.

"I know there's a lot of money coming from oil but it doesn't come to people like us," she said, gesturing to three of her children who were playing barefoot in the dirt.

Equatorial Guinea's crude oil production has risen from next to nothing a decade ago to 350 000 barrels per day, making it sub-Saharan Africa's third-biggest producer after Nigeria and Angola. Oil represents 90 percent of the state's income.

It is a prize that foreign oil firms have lined up to get a share of, with US company Exxon Mobil at the front of the queue - and authorities say oil was the reason behind a failed mercenary coup attempt six months ago.

The surge in oil revenues has boosted real gross domestic product (GDP) by rates many countries can only dream of - 37,5 percent in 2001, 17,6 in 2002, and almost 15 percent last year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which predicts growth of 45,1 percent in 2005.

The government budget for 2004 puts oil revenues at 539,7 billion CFA francs (R6,5-billion). That figure is based on an average oil price of $25 per barrel, well under the record highs it has fetched this year.

The sums represent a huge bonanza for the former Spanish colony of between 500 000 and a million inhabitants, split between a mountainous jungle mainland and lush volcanic islands including Bioko, where the capital is located.

The minimum legal wage for those lucky enough to work in the oil sector is at least 2,5 times higher than for other workers.

The effects are visible on the streets of central Malabo. At a gleaming, well-stocked supermarket, middle-class shoppers fill trolleys with expensive imported foods and wines.

Traffic jams, previously unheard of, are now a daily fixture. Among the battered old cars there are more and more four-by-fours and sleek luxury sedans with dark windows.

A few new buildings, like the block covered in blue mirrors housing the national telecommunications company, contrast with Malabo's colonial arcaded houses with their peeling yellow paint.

But a short distance from the centre, across a slimy river, the slum of Ela Nguema displays no tell-tale signs of new wealth. There, people live in corrugated iron shacks, many with mud floors and no running water or electricity.

"All the social infrastructures - water, electricity, education, health - are not taken into account in a satisfactory way," said Bacar Abdouroihamane, head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Equatorial Guinea.

The biggest obstacle to development is poor training and education, with 65 percent of young people not finishing school and a lack of properly qualified teachers, Abdouroihamane said.

Equatorial Guinea has no daily newspaper, no bookshop, and just one public library at the Spanish cultural centre.

In the UNDP's ranking of countries by human development, Equatorial Guinea dropped from 94th place in 1985 to 116th place in 2001.

"The country needs brains. It needs to train people so they are capable of managing their wealth," said Abdouroihamane.

Equatorial Guinea has been ruled for a quarter of a century by the same man, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, since he deposed his despotic uncle and had him executed. Obiang and his family have kept a firm grip on power ever since.

In a December 2003 report, the IMF said the government's response to the policy challenges from the surge in oil wealth had been "inadequate", although it said the authorities were starting to address the problems.

The Washington-based group said the 2002 budget accounts were more transparent than in the past but added it would like more information about discrepancies between budget and bank account transactions in earlier years.

Foreign critics have accused the country's rulers of siphoning off petrodollars into personal accounts.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission last month asked five oil companies including Exxon Mobil for information about their dealings with the government.

Obiang's name has also cropped up in a scandal surrounding Riggs Bank, which US senators lambasted for failing to question large cash deposits into the president's accounts, including one brought in a suitcase weighing 27kg.

"Oil companies in Equatorial Guinea may have contributed to corrupt practices in that country," a Senate report said, adding that substantial payments had been made by oil firms to government members and their relatives.

The subject of corruption is taboo in Equatorial Guinea's tightly-controlled media, but some of the government's publicised spending choices are enough to set tongues wagging.

"You heard about the presidential plane? That's really going to benefit the people of this country," joked Aseko, a taxi driver, referring to a Boeing 737 recently acquired for some $50 million for the use of the head of state.

Obiang said in August that his new plane was designed to improve Equatorial Guinea's image in developed countries.