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Africa Nations Cup for the privileged few

15 January 2015, 14:38

Libreville - Only a small number of foreign fans will be allowed past the tightly-controlled Equatorial Guinea borders to see the Africa Cup of Nations which was rescued by the country's autocratic leader Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

The long-shunned Obiang will get precious international attention by hosting the continent's biggest sporting event after it nearly became a victim of Ebola fever.

But it does not mean that Obiang, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since he seized power in 1979 in a coup d'etat and now controls the West African country's vast oil wealth, is opening up to the world.

The president has insisted that the tournament, which starts Saturday and runs to February 8, should not be a chance for illegal migrants to get in.

"Neighbours who want to come see the Nations Cup matches, let them come on organised buses, let them register at our consulates and embassies. At the frontier their passport will be confiscated and given back when they return home," he said.

The competition is guaranteed a huge international television audience. But diplomats say administrative hurdles have stopped many fans getting visas.

Equatorial Guinea may not want many fans though. The biggest stadium at Bata has a capacity of 35,000 while the smallest in Ebebiyin will take only 5,000.

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) was left in desperate straits in November though after Morocco withdrew from hosting the tournament because of their fears the Ebola virus could be spread by visiting fans.

"Two months from the event, to accept to organise a competition like this, you really have to be a true African," said CAF president Issa Hayatou, only half joking when Equatorial Guinea stepped in.

Not everyone is happy though.

The west African country has had huge oil wealth since the early 2000s, but the population remains one of the world's poorest and the government's human rights record is strongly criticised. The ruling family faces legal investigations in the United States and Europe over misused funds.

The only opposition member of parliament in Equatorial Guinea, Placido Miko, has called hosting the football tournament "an absurdity" for which no budget has been voted by parliament.

"Oil represents 90% of the country's resources," Miko told AFP. "In the current climate in which the barrel of oil has lost 40-50% of its value, this is an irresponsible improvisation which will bring nothing to the country."

"We urge the football fans following this tournament, which is supposed to unite nations and promote values, not to forget that, despite its polished facade, Equatorial Guinea is in reality a dictatorship that tramples on its citizens' rights," said the Reporters Without Borders group in a statement.

Obiang has used some of Equatorial Guinea's petro-dollars on a building spree aiming to boost his image. A huge convention centre has hosted several international summits and a new capital, Oyala, is rising out of the jungle.

Equatorial Guinea also co-hosted the 2012 African Nations Cup with Gabon.

Obiang says he personally bought 40,000 tickets for Nations Cup games to give away to the country's poor. He has also cut two hours off the working day for civil servants to encourage them to attend matches.

Stadiums built in the capital Malabo and at Bata along with new roads and hotels for the 2012 tournament will be used for the Nations Cup.

There are more worries about games in Mongomo and Ebebiyin, where a shortage of beds is feared.

Equatorial Guinea's Sports Minister Francisco Pascual Eyegue Obama Asue said last week that facilities in both towns are "perfect and ready."

"There is no problem. We can accommodate however many people want to come," the minister added.

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