EQUATORIAL Guinea is associated with many things — arbitrary detention, torture and killing of citizens, fraudulent elections and corruption. One thing it is not certainly associated with is a quest to improve the quality of human life. This makes the establishment of the Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences an oddity that hardly seems worth mentioning.
However, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) is taking it seriously. In 2008, Unesco agreed to back the prize in Obiang’s name and funded by him — despite an appalling human rights record.
Obiang’s plan was foiled last year when a storm of protest by human rights groups, anticorruption organisations and citizens led Unesco to suspend the award indefinitely.
Obiang is clearly trying to improve his international image.
At Unesco’s annual board meeting, which started last week, the issue popped up again, when 15 African states proposed lifting the suspension. Unsurprisingly, the group includes countries with less than exemplary human rights records themselves, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Côte d’Ivoire and Republic of Congo, but also reforming countries such as Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana.
The truth is that Obiang is leveraging his chairmanship of the African Union (AU) to get support for his vanity project from states that should be distancing themselves from him. Not only did Obiang have his uncle executed to become president more than 30 years ago, his rule has been a brutal dictatorship and in effect a one- party affair despite the introduction of so-called multiparty elections in 1991. A small population and high oil revenue make the country’s per capita gross domestic product the highest in Africa, but the statistics mask rampant poverty. Oil-revenue spending lacks transparency and although the government applied to become part of the global Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, it was turned down for failing to meet the entry criteria.
The oil-funded spending excesses enjoyed by the Obiang family are exemplified by the president’s son, Teodoro Obiang, minister of agriculture and international playboy.
A potential successor to the Obiang throne, the son reportedly splashed $10m on one spending spree in SA a few years ago, which makes the president’s $3m prize money piffling by family standards. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been a vocal critic of Unesco’s consideration of the award and, last week, a critical article by him calling on the organisation to reject it appeared on several websites.
Although SA is not part of the African lobby at Unesco, President appears to be very interested in Equatorial Guinea. In 2009, he visited the country twice, the second time on a state visit following Obiang’s unsurprising election victory with 97% of the votes.
SA’s communique said the country was eager to promote relations in agriculture, mining, energy, tourism and infrastructure development, as well as the “strengthening of democracy on the continent”. But SA has limited trade with the country. Its biggest interest is through PetroSA, which is exploring for oil.
The fact that Obiang, who embodies Africa’s worst political excesses, is Africa’s representative-in-chief through his chairmanship of the A U – the same organisation that embraced Muammar Gaddafi as its head barely two years ago — diminishes the continent. Unesco, too, will be diminished if it caves in to the A U lobby. The $3m Obiang is putting into the award is small change for a man with an estimated net worth of $600m, but it will be very costly for the organisation in terms of its reputation and credibility if it approves the award.