Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo may be welcome among the world’s most powerful people, who work for his favour behind the scenes in return for lucrative trade deals, but he is less favourably viewed by human rights defenders, development agencies and the citizens of his country. Agustín Velloso looks at Obiang’s controversial effort to obtain wider global respect and appreciation through the creation of an international prize in partnership with UNESCO.
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Equatorial Guinea’s recalcitrant leader, is a very wealthy man. He has amassed such a fortune that he could only get rid of his bank notes by burning them.
He cannot use his money to buy power – he has, after all, enjoyed that in its absolute form for the last thirty years. His eldest son wants for nothing, and his family is wallowing in plenty. Global Witness published a report entitled ‘The Secret Life of a Shopaholic: How an African dictator's playboy son went on a multi-million dollar shopping spree in the US’.
Neither does Teodoro Obiang need money to earn a place among the world’s most powerful. He is already a welcome member of this cabal, which often treats him with affection. Welcoming him in Washington back in 2006, erstwhile secretary of state Condoleeza Rice said, ‘You are a good friend, and we welcome you’.
He has been welcomed to Beijing six times by Hu Jintao, who said to him, ‘bilateral relations between our two countries have developed through goodwill’.
Obiang is chummy with Spain’s left and right. Foreign minister Moratinos (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) declared in 2006 that Spain aimed to ‘accompany, encourage, and motivate Guinea to progress on the path of democratisation and the defence of human rights’.
This is precisely what Aznar (Popular Party) felt as well, back in 2001, when, as head of government he urged Obiang to ‘carry on the process of democratisation in Equatorial Guinea’.
A parliamentary delegation comprising these two and the Convergence and Unity party visited Guinea in 2007, and noted the ‘progress made in the democratisation process’.
In January 2010, Gustavo de Arístegui, MP and spokesperson on foreign affairs for the Popular Party, elucidated one of Obiang’s best-known qualities by declaring him ‘profoundly hispanist’.
Citizens of Equatorial Guinea, the United Nations and other international agencies working in human rights and development, however, hold a negative, if not loathsome opinion of the man.
Obiang is not oblivious of what the world thinks of him, and he believes that money is the cure. This is where lobbyists, public relations firms and lawyers come in. Over the last few years, there has been a growing number of internet pages bearing editorials and testimonies praising this evil man.
The strength and growth of the pro-Obiang lobby is remarkable. At the last count, there were around 17,000 personnel in Washington, and another 15,000 in Brussels.
Cassidy & Associates represents Obiang in the US. In 2008, the firm billed US$23 million. Since 2004, the Obiang portfolio has been worth US$120,000 per month – this according to the US Department of Justice.
Cassidy & Associates is credited with the warm welcome given to Obiang by Rice. The photograph of Obiang and Rice is of such enduring value that it features on the front page of the official Guinea website, alongside typical landscape pictures of the country.
Pressure groups have also been very influential in this regard. Frank Ruddy, former US Ambassador to Equatorial Guinea declared, ‘A few years ago, at least US officials wouldn't talk about the relationship with Equatorial Guinea, or they would admit all the problems and horrible human rights abuses. Now, you would have thought this is Mother Teresa's brother running Equatorial Guinea.’
Whereas, these pressure groups are an important source of good publicity for Obiang, it is the support he gets from powerful world leaders that helps create a positive image for him.
More importantly, powerful leaders continue to work in Obiang’s favour behind the scenes within key national, international and bilateral institutions. Obiang, for his part, returns the favour by signing lucrative trade deals, military contracts and other agreements with their governments.
There are ongoing probes into Obiang’s massive corruption both in the US and in Europe. One US Senate sub-committee declared that it had frozen US$700 million in a Riggs Bank account, which had subsequently disappeared. This information is contained in a report entitled ‘Money Laundering and Foreign Corruption’.
In both France and Spain, there are judges engaged in a futile effort to delve into an account in the Santander Bank that holds US$26 million, properties in Asturias, Madrid, Canary Islands and other vast holdings in France that belong to the people of Equatorial Guinea. This information is public, but Obiang’s friends have frustrated the process.
Obiang has accumulated his riches dealing with the multi-nationals that control the country’s oil industry. (See article regarding France by Eulàlia Solé in La Vanguardia ‘Embarrassment for France’, and another article on Spain written in May of the same year).
It is probably because of the disdain with which he regards Spain that Obiang assigns the role of promoting the country there to a clumsy public relations person.
In 2009 this person stated, ‘Until a few months ago, I did not even know that Spanish is spoken in Equatorial Guinea’. This rather bleak calling card notwithstanding, she declares: ‘I proudly run an information service for Equatorial Guinea, here in Spain, and elsewhere’.
Whereas one may lend credence to what she says, it is puzzling that as the head of this service, she uses an email address linked to Centauro, a company associated with 803 and 806 numbers (sex chat lines), and not one associated with the embassy or any other official organ of the Guinean government.
She introduces herself in a pompous and clumsy way on an Internet forum associated with Equatorial Guinea: ‘Hi, my name is N.B. I am a journalist and working for various media. I had the pleasure of meeting Armando who introduced me to this forum, and your contributions’.
Since she is not able to attract the attention that she feels her ‘office’ deserves, she spends her time frequenting and promoting the forum – a task for which she is probably paid. In one message, she refers to an article on Equatorial Guinea that was going to appear in Hola magazine in August 2008. ‘It was I who encouraged the emotive human interest angle of the story, that is in line with the magazine’s character’.
One of Obiang’s image consultants hit upon the idea of an initiative that the whole world would appreciate for its intrinsic value, and that would be linked to an institution held in high regard by everyone.
Encouraged by this idea, Obiang attended the UNESCO General Assembly in October 2007, where he announced his intention to establish the ‘UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for the Preservation of Life’, to be funded by the government of Equatorial Guinea.
Considering what little regard Obiang has for the lives of his fellow citizens, the name was a little too bloody, even for UNESCO which itself has a shady history of associating with arms dealers and dictators.
Following another brainwave from yet another advisor, the government of Equatorial Guinea presented UNESCO with a document entitled ‘Establishment of an UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences’ on 29 September 2008.
Neither the corruptor nor the corrupted could have anticipated the collateral effects of this proposal. How could they? Here is a powerful man, accustomed to buying whatever he wants. In addition there is the support of the UN and a number of its more neoliberal-leaning agencies only too eager to grab an opportunity to justify their sad existence, in total disregard of their statutory obligations. (See the extension of the deadline for proposals for the prize).
As soon as the matter came to light, a number of governments anticipated the impending storm and voiced their criticism. At the same time, various NGOs who have had Obiang in the cross hairs objected. In January of 2010, it was officially announced that UNESCO was provisionally withdrawing the Prize. UNESCO explained that they were conducting a review of procedures regarding this and other prizes. This was clearly an attempt to lend some legitimacy to the shady dealings.
The mobilisation by this group of influential NGOs along with key personalities succeeded in forestalling a global scandal, and bringing to light a number of key issues:
1. The cynicism of certain international organisations and their inability to fulfil their mandate and that of the UN Charter.
2. The attempts by Obiang and his political and economic cronies to buy what all the money in the world couldn’t buy him: The support of his people and the respect of the rest of humanity.
3. The importance of concerted action by groups of people opposed to impunity and corruption by those in power.
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