Tutu Alicante, founder and executive director of EG Justice, a NGO that focuses on improving human rights and governance in his native Equatorial Guinea, reports on the latest news on the President Obiang’s UNESCO prize.
It’s been a troubling week for those of us concerned with corruption and bad governance. And it is a troubling day for most Equatoguineans.
On Tuesday evening, UNESCO awarded the controversial prize sponsored by President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, my native country. The decision to do so is an embarrassment for the organization and a setback in the effort to press for good governance and government accountability in Equatorial Guinea.
The UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences was awarded despite an unprecedented global outcry from a myriad of actors, including Nobel Laureates, Cano prize winners, prominent African and Latin American intellectuals and literary figures, scientists, public health professionals, press freedom groups and civil society organizations.
Many Equatoguineans bravely spoke out against the prize, as did many other Africans, including prominent champions of social justice like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, and the renowned writer Chinua Achebe. Their voices were ignored by UNESCO delegates, apparently more concerned with strengthening their diplomatic and business ties to the Obiang regime and standing up for a false idea of “African Solidarity” than with upholding the principles espoused by UNESCO.
In moving forward with the prize, UNESCO is helping to launder the image of a man who has tightly controlled power since 1979, and who appears intent on creating a family dynasty by eventually handing power over to his son. That son, commonly referred to as Teodorín, is the subject of a corruption investigation in the United States and is wanted under an international arrest warrant issued last week in France –- the same country in which the prize ceremony took place.
The stated goal of the UNESCO prize is “contributing to improving the quality of human life.” Having been in power for 33 years, President Obiang has had ample time to improve the quality of human life inside my country. Yet the vast majority of Equatoguineans remain mired in poverty without reliable access to clean drinking water or good healthcare. President Obiang, his family, and close associates, on the other hand, enjoy outrageously luxurious lifestyles with the money obtained from Equatorial Guinea’s vast oil wealth.
The hypocrisy of the prize is further outlined by the politically motivated detention of Dr. Wenceslao Mansogo Alo, a well-respected medical doctor in a country with too few qualified doctors. Dr. Mansogo, who is also a human rights activist and leading member of an opposition party, has had his medical license revoked and his clinic closed, despite receiving a pardon by President Obiang in June 2012.
The harassment of Dr. Mansogo is not unique: Equatoguineans are kept in a state of fear by a regime that uses arbitrary arrest, harassment, and torture to intimidate critical voices inside the country.
Back in March, when UNESCO approved the prize, some of the 33 UNESCO delegates who voted in favor (18 voted against and six abstained) claimed that the prize demonstrated that developing countries could help themselves. Yes, that is true. They can. And they should. But developing countries are not helped by a prize that reflects bad governance.
Despite its name, this is not a prize supported by the people of Equatorial Guinea.
This is President Obiang’s prize. He unilaterally decided to give UNESCO $3 million from the state treasury in an effort to polish his tarnished international image.
UNESCO’s decision to suspend the prize in 2010 and 2011 in response to overwhelming pressure was eye-opening for many of my fellow countrymen and women. For perhaps the first time, they realized that President Obiang wasn’t invincible. It opened a crack in the façade of his all-powerful regime.
I fear that UNESCO’s unfortunate geopolitically-driven decision to award the prize will close that crack, extinguish that ray of hope, and give root to a hardened cynicism in which Equatoguineans believe that the international community has turned its back on them. In one sense, UNESCO already has.
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