MALABO, Equatorial Guinea - The sun hammered down on the crowd of 10,000 people crammed into the soccer stadium for the launch of the president's re-election campaign. It was noon, and the steamy tropical air had come to a boil. Dressed in T-shirts and caps decorated with their leader's face, the spectators looked weary, sweat pouring from their brows, waiting for the president of their tiny African nation to speak.
He sat before them in the shade, a waiter by his side refreshing his glass of ice water. A tall, thin man with elbows that jutted out like wings, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who came to power by military coup 23 years ago, looked small beside the wall of beefy Moroccan bodyguards standing behind him.
At last, he took a sip of water, rose and spoke of his country's stunning transformation.
How just a few years ago, Equatorial Guinea - a scattering of malaria-infested islands in the Gulf of Guinea and a sliver of jungle on Africa's mainland - was a hopelessly poor, largely ignored backwater, a former Spanish colony of 500,000 people known for little more than its endangered monkeys and modest cacao production.
How today his country has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with new hotels, restaurants and office blocks under construction in the once sleepy capital. How new investors are arriving each week hoping to strike it rich in a country referred to by those in the know as simply "E-G."
How oil has changed their lives forever.
"Like the Scriptures say when the Pharaoh of Egypt had a dream of lean cows and fat cows," the president told them. "We have passed the time of lean cows that represent hunger and we are now in the time of fat cows which is prosperity."
Billions of dollars' worth of petroleum reserves have been discovered just off Equatorial Guinea's shores in the Gulf of Guinea. In less than a decade, the country's oil production has jumped to 220,000 barrels a day from a paltry 5,000 - with the potential to grow to 724,000 by 2020.
The discoveries have pushed this once-overlooked country to the forefront of the oil rush under way in West Africa, a region that supplies the United States with almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia. In Chad, a $3.7 billion pipeline will soon carry 250,000 barrels of oil per day from a remote basin across Cameroon to oil tankers anchored in the Gulf of Guinea. In the nearby islands of Sao Tome and Principe, more than 4 billion barrels of oil are ready to be tapped. In Nigeria, Africa's petroleum giant, oil companies have the potential to increase production from current levels of 2.1 million barrels per day to as high as 5 million by the end of the decade.
And never has African oil been more important to the United States. With turmoil in the Middle East and a possible war with Iraq threatening to disrupt oil supplies, U.S. policy-makers are looking more and more to Africa as an alternative source to meet America's need for imported oil. The United States depends on Africa for 15 percent of its oil imports. But by 2015, Africa is expected to supply one-fourth of U.S. import demands, according to the U.S. National Intelligence Council.
Whether this oil rush will benefit the people living here is unclear. Historically, natural resources in Africa have been squandered through corruption and civil wars. One need only look at Nigeria, where the country by most measures is worse off today than it was 25 years ago despite the government having collected more than $300 billion in oil revenue.
Nowhere along Africa's coast are both the perils and possibilities of this oil boom illustrated more clearly than in Equatorial Guinea. Oil has the potential to eradicate widespread poverty in a country where some residents survive by hunting monkeys and rats for food and consider running water and electricity luxuries.
But even with the economy's phenomenal 65 percent growth last year, there is little hope that that this new prosperity will trickle down to the people.
President Obiang's regime has been characterized by widespread corruption, gross financial mismanagement and the jailing, torture and beating of political opponents. The CIA World Factbook describes Equatorial Guinea's leadership as "ruthless."
The U.S. State Department's most recent human rights report on Equatorial Guinea gives the country failing marks and concludes: "There is little evidence that the country's oil wealth is being devoted to the public good."
Given the country's leadership, residents don't expect that to change.
"Before oil, I took this salary," says Jose Luis Lohoso, an employee in the Ministry of Agriculture and father of eight, raising his hand an inch or two off the table to indicate the small number of bills he receives on payday. "After oil, I take the same salary. Nothing has changed. The oil money is there. But it is not circulated."