Obiang prize goes down to the wire

Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo is a stubborn man.  In 2008, the president of Equatorial Guinea made a $3 million donation to UNESCO to underwrite a prize in the life sciences. But a groundswell of opposition from human rights groups, press freedom organizations, and governments appalled by Obiang’s record of kleptocracy and human rights abuses helped raise a global ruckus. Public pressure eventually forced UNESCO’s executive board to reach a face saving agreement to suspend the prize while promising “to continue the consultations among all parties.”

The expectation at the time was that Obiang would accept defeat and that the so-called consultations would go on indefinitely without consensus ever being reached. No such luck. 

In February 2011, Obiang became the rotating chairman of the African Union.  In July, he poured an estimated $800 million into hosting a presidential summit in Malabo, the country’s capital, that set a new standard for opulence.  “Besides an 18-hole golf course, a five-star hotel and a spa, the country built a villa for each of the continent’s 52 presidents,” said a recent AP report.  “Each one came with a gourmet chef and a private elevator leading to a suite overlooking the mile-long artificial beach that had been sculpted out of the country’s coast especially for them.”

The charm offensive worked, as Obiang emerged from the summit with an AU resolution endorsing the prize. With the support of the African and Arab members of UNESCO’s executive board, Obiang seemed be on the verge last week of finally having his way.

But then the tide began to turn. Archbishop Desmond Tutu came out with a powerful op-ed bemoaning Equatorial Guinea’s record of “torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, and harassment of journalists and civil society groups.” CPJ board member Charlayne Hunter-Gault weighed in with an article highlighting the country’s abysmal press freedom record. Eighteen luminaries including several winners of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano press freedom prize, wrote to UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova calling on the organization “not lend its prestige to a prize in President Obiang’s name.”

Then last Wednesday, French police seized 11 luxury cars outside Obiang’s posh residence on Avenue Foch in Paris as part of an ongoing criminal investigation. The seizure and underlying corruption inquiry highlighted concerns about the provenance of Obiang’s gift to UNESCO.

Stung by these developments, Bokova began looking for a way out. On Friday, she told members of the executive board:  “As generous as he [President Obiang] was in offering this prize, I think he should make the same proof of generosity [by withdrawing it.]”

Discussions are expected to continue today at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris. Obiang’s stubborn streak makes it unlikely he’ll take Bokova’s advice and withdraw the prize. In the end, it may be up to African leaders to stand up to a dictator who tried to buy their support at the luxurious Malabo summit and now is pouring on the pressure to keep them in line. With their own reputations on the line, not to mention that of UNESCO and the entire U.N. system, African leaders simply cannot allow themselves be bullied.