African business, politics and lifestyle
Critics pan Africa’s new patron of the sciences
Think scientific excellence and Equatorial Guinea may not
immediately spring to mind.
Still less might you think of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo,
whose 30-year rule over the tiny central African oil producer
country has left him with an international reputation for
corruption and civil rights abuses.
Yet that did not stop the United Nations’ cultural arm
UNESCO from naming an award for life sciences achievement after
Obiang, who is funding the prize to the tune of $3 million. The
lucky winner will be known next month.
Rights groups are incensed.
“The grim irony of awarding a prize recognizing ‘scientific
achievements that improve the quality of human life’, while
naming it for a president whose 30-year rule has been marked by
the brutal poverty and fear of his people and a global
reputation for governmental corruption, would bring shame on
UNESCO,” 30 groups said in a May 10 letter to UNESCO.
“We repeat our call for the $3 million that UNESCO has
accepted from President Obiang to be applied to the education
and welfare of Equatoguineans, rather than the glorification of
their president,” they urged.
Obiang is no stranger to controversy.
Last year a Spanish state prosecutor called for him to be
investigated over suspected illegal money transfers used to buy
property in Spain, with one rights group saying the funds amounted
to $26.5 million. Obiang’s government dismissed the allegations.
Yet questions remain over how his son Teodorin manages to
eke out his ministerial salary of a few thousand dollars a
month to a fund a playboy lifestyle in the United States, where
he owns a $35 million mansion in California.
In last year’s survey of perceptions of corruption in 180
countries by Berlin-based Transparency International, Equatorial
was ranked 12th from bottom.
The row is doing the rounds of the blogs — including this
one in The Huffington Post – urging the United States and the
European Union to insist UNESCO return the money or withdraw
their support from the body.
UNESCO has yet to make an official public comment on the
matter but in a written reply to the rights groups seen by
Reuters it pointed out that its Executive Board took a consensus
decision to establish the prize “having heard the strong support
of the African Member States”. Any move to reverse that would
have to be taken by the Executive Board, it noted.
It is of course easy to see why Obiang might think $3
million is well spent on buffing up his international image.
It is also understandable that the countries whose firms are
lining up to take a share in the local oil and gas sector –
among them, Americans, Germans, Spanish and Portuguese — would
prefer to avoid the row.
Perhaps the harder question is working out what scientist
would be happy to have his or her name linked to the award.
Should UNESCO think again on the Obiang life science prize?