Under pressure from campaigners, UNESCO last year rightly shelved a prize for research in the life sciences funded by Equatorial Guinea’s president of 32 years, the despotic Teodoro Obiang. Given Obiang's poor human rights record, why are African governments suddenly so eager to resuscitate the award, asks Tutu Alicante.
This month, in the Parisian offices of UNESCO, a small group of African diplomats – following orders from their governments – are gambling that Africans have short memories. They gamble that we can be easily duped. They gamble that we will look away as they disregard principles, like those claimed by the African Union, that bind our people together. They’ve manoeuvred behind closed doors to dust off an idea for a prize that was rightly shelved by UNESCO last year. We must look beyond the benevolent veneer the prize’s name bearer and supporters proclaim. What the prize stands for is something we Africans must firmly reject.
The ‘Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences’ is named for and funded by the man who holds the title of Africa’s longest ruling leader. President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea has enjoyed a 32-year reign and was surpassed in length only by Muammar Gaddafi on the African continent. The prize would dispense US$300,000 from Obiang’s opaque coffers to five scientists each. It is not difficult to imagine that less than a year ago a potential Gaddafi or Mubarak prize might also have looked enticing to these same African diplomats.
For ten years Obiang has desperately lobbied UNESCO to host his award. During this same time, however, he and his regime have neglected to adequately fund education or healthcare in the country, while committing many other egregious violations of citizens’ civil liberties. We should reject our governments’ support of anything in the name of this ‘leader’, posing on a global stage as a representative of Africa.
African governments tacitly backed by the Arab bloc are attempting to resuscitate this prize left for dead. Why now? What has occurred in the time since the idea for the Obiang prize was abandoned? For one, only a few months after its abandonment President Obiang secured the chairmanship of the African Union and rolled out the red carpet for African governments at the AU’s June 2011 Summit in Equatorial Guinea. There, it seems, he leveraged this leadership position and ensured that before the heads of states packed up and left the hastily erected resort city of Sipopo, they adopted a curt resolution of support for the prize.
Now, African governments point to this AU document to justify resurrection of the prize. They misrepresent the prize as an ‘African programme.’ But let us be clear: According to the prize’s own rules, its awardees would not have to be Africans. They would not even have to work in Africa. Nor would they have to work on an issue acutely affecting the citizens of our continent. Africans and members of the global community have been lulled by the prizes’ vague language, erroneously believing it to be a prize for and by Africans. It is most certainly not. It is an image-laundering project, masquerading as an incentive for scientists to focus on projects that would benefit Africa.
Not only does the prize not benefit Africans directly, the source of its funding is very dubious. Other global leaders turned-philanthropists release the funding sources and the tax statements of their foundations. President Obiang, however, has not opened the books to disclose information about the source of the funds committed to this prize. Nor has he been transparent about funds held in foreign bank accounts in his name; or about funds generated by construction companies for which he is the primary stakeholder. Without such standard assurances, African governments, UNESCO, and potential beneficiaries should be on notice that the prize risks serving as a pathway to launder money through scientific laboratories.
African governments, in their appeal to UNESCO to resurrect the prize, have raised concerns about member states’ ‘ethics and shared responsibility.’ They proclaim a need to follow through on the prize they allege is consistent with our nations’ shared goals. Perhaps they should reflect more deeply on the goals to which they refer. Or, perhaps it is time they make a clean break from the OAU legacy, as a dictators club, and ensure that AU members abide by the principles of this supposedly new entity. For one, there are five key African Union principles that remain unmet in the country that the prize’s name bearer has ruled since 1979. In Equatorial Guinea there is little political will to uphold the AU principles of fostering democracy, rule of law and basic freedoms, promoting human rights, protecting women’s rights, combating corruption and increasing investment in health and education.
With respect to the Obiang prize in the ‘Life Sciences’, however, let us focus our attention on his regime’s investment in health and education. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights requires states to ’take the necessary measures to protect the health of their people.’ While the Equatoguinean government has pledged to increase investment in these two areas, the reality in the country appears quite different.
One only need look from the eyes of a child. A typical child born in Equatorial Guinea this past year theoretically earns US$30,000 from the national oil revenues. But in reality she’ll have a one in ten chance of dying before she celebrates her fifth birthday. If she does survive, then she has a three in four chance of living her life in poverty. She will probably not have access to clean water for bathing, drinking and eating. Her parents will be lucky to live past the age 50. Compared to their generation, their little girl’s chances of being enrolled in primary school have dropped 30 per cent. Their vote was probably assigned to the president in 2009 when, with 95 per cent of the electorate, his four decade-long grip of power tightened.
Equatorial Guinea is oil-rich and has a population of less than 700,000 people. Yet it spends less than most other African countries on its own people. At home, President Obiang has not shown the leadership to invest the government’s vast resources into an educational system that could ever produce its own scientists who might one day access any potential Obiang-UNESCO prize.
Instead, this little girl and her family will live in abject poverty. This, despite the fact that her country is the world’s third highest per capita producer of oil (double that of Saudi Arabia). Equatorial Guinea has one of the planet’s fastest economic growth rates. And while national wealth has yet to benefit the average people of the country, its leader and his circle have done extremely well for themselves. Perhaps too well, since most recently French authorities moved last year to probe the tens of millions of euros President Obiang holds in French bank accounts. This same African leader now seeks to channel more of the money in his possession through the AU and UNESCO.
Like our young sister above, we Africans desperately need our governments to demonstrate their budding support for science and for solving major challenges by investing directly in basic education for our children first.
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