COLUMBUS, OHIO – In a better world, my nieces and nephews in Equatorial Guinea would respect our country’s president for overseeing the careful management of revenues pouring in from oil, and for using these funds for development. In a better world, my nieces and nephews would honor the United Nations’ main cultural institution, UNESCO, for insisting on improving the education and health of Africa’s children.
But in the world as we know it, relatively few people love and respect President Teodoro Obiang. His biggest fans might include the high-living members of his family, along with selected business executives in the United States and Europe, where he spends quite a bit of his money. Or certain members of the UN Human Rights Council: during a session in March, some states had the gall to congratulate Equatorial Guinea for its “unequivocal commitment” to human rights.
Board members of UNESCO also seem to love and respect Obiang. They have accepted $3 million from him for a prize named in his honor. The prize is supposed to recognize the work of individuals and institutions, including non-governmental organizations, for scientific research in the life sciences that improves the quality of human life. Perhaps the recipients will love Obiang, too.
It is easy to see where Obiang – who seized power in Equatorial Guinea after killing his predecessor – gets the money that he tosses around. Since the mid-1990’s, Equatorial Guinea has become a large oil exporter.
While Obiang and his family and cronies jet around the world living the high life, my nieces and nephews number among the vast majority of the country’s people who remain mired in poverty. Child mortality is high. Free and fair elections do not exist. Arbitrary detention and torture are widespread. The government allows almost no independent news and information.
In 2009, the UN found that Equatorial Guinea had the world’s largest disparity between its per capita GDP ranking, which was on a par with Italy and Spain, and its level of human development – close to Haiti’s. My nieces and nephews have a life expectancy of 52 years.
According to the president’s son and heir-apparent, Teodorin Obiang, in Equatorial Guinea it is not illegal for a government minister to own a company and to submit bids for government contracts to the ministry that he or she controls. Such brazen corruption would be laughable if its effects were not so debilitating to the country.
Among its avowed priorities, UNESCO lists gender equality, universal education, sustainable development, and ethics. My nieces and nephews in Equatorial Guinea still go to school on an empty stomach. They return home by mid-day to help supplement the household income by selling doughnuts in the streets – at a time when they are supposed to be completing homework. Surviving on less than a dollar a day, as most of my countrymen do, means living without running water, sanitation, or electricity.
Given the mountain of evidence of corruption and money-laundering by Obiang, his family, and his associates, as well as the deplorable living conditions that people in Equatorial Guinea endure, how is it possible that UNESCO agreed to accept Obiang’s money and name a prize in life sciences after him? What due diligence was conducted to ensure that the money it received to fund the prize was not actually stolen from the very Africans whose interests UNESCO claims to champion?
As far as the people of Equatorial Guinea are concerned, by offering this prize, UNESCO lends credibility to Obiang and his regime, and becomes complicit in its abuses. UNESCO – not alone among UN entities – seems more inclined to bend over backwards to avoid taking any action that might offend “African sensibilities” on its board. One European ambassador was quoted as saying that African countries were all in favor of the prize, and they had enough supporters to take it forward.
The Obiang Prize is a mockery of everything UNESCO publicly stands for. UNESCO remains unabashed. It has signaled no willingness to withdraw the award or investigate the origins of Obiang’s gift. Wouldn’t it be nice if UNESCO and its executive board – particularly the board’s African members – actually stood up for African people? Or maybe they love Obiang’s money more than they love my nieces and nephews.
Tutu Alicante is the executive director of EG Justice, an NGO dedicated to human rights and the rule of law in Equatorial Guinea. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.