An African kleptocracy’s U.S. helpers
As bizarre events go, pride of place must go to an African summit scheduled for later this month in Equatorial Guinea.
The meeting’s agenda includes human rights and good governance and it will be hosted by Teodore Obiang,Africa’s longest-serving leader, whose government has won a reputation for corruption and repression.
What makes the event even more noteworthy is the fact that it is being organized by a Washington-based organization founded by an American civil rights leader of sterling repute, the late Reverend Leon H. Sullivan, a champion of freedom and human rights. The Leon H. Sullivan Foundation is now run by his daughter, Hope Sullivan Masters.
The Chairman of the board is Andrew Young, like Sullivan a leader in the 1960s civil rights movement. Foundation documents list former President Bill Clinton as an Honorary Chairman.
The summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea’s capital, will bring together 4,000 delegates, including “nearly 25 heads of state” from Aug. 20 to 24, according to the Foundation’s website. Obiang, who has been in power since he ousted his uncle in a bloody coup in 1979, will host the discussions, under the motto “Africa Rising.”
Why Malabo? Why Obiang?
As Thor Halvorssen, head of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, sees it: “The Sullivan Foundation, charged with advocating for civil rights and justice, appears to be running a disinformation campaign for a dictator.”
That, in fact, seems to be a key reason for holding the event. One of the pre-summit press releases issued by the Foundation says the summit is designed “to combat the negative image of Equatorial Guinea” and the host site “will stand to challenge the international media, global human rights organizations and Western nations who have consistently been critical of President Obiang.”
Brightening the image of the Obiang government will require more than workshops and speeches extolling the virtue of good governance and the need to end a culture of impunity (both listed as agenda topics). Even on a continent which has had its fair share of corrupt and ruthless dictatorships, Equatorial Guinea stands out.
It ranks 172nd out of 182 on the corruption index issued annually by Transparency International, a Berlin-based watchdog group.
Freedom House, a U.S. human rights group, lists Equatorial Guinea on the top of its “worst of the worst” list of human rights abusers, alongside North Korea, Somalia, Sudan and Syria.
The Committee to Protect Journalists rates Equatorial Guinea as the fifth most censored country in the world.
The U.S. Department of State’s annual report on human rights around the world mentions “disregard for the rule of law and due process, denial of basic political rights including freedom of speech and press, and widespread official corruption.”
KLEPTOCRACY ASSET RECOVERY
On the Sullivan Foundation’s website, former Ghanaian president John Kufuor has expressed confidence that theMalabo summit will change the international community’s perception of Equatorial Guinea.
Probably not. One of the headline-generating problems for changing perceptions is President Obiang’s son, Teodore Obiang Nguema, also known as Teodorin (Little Teodor). He has run afoul not only of the U.S. Justice Department’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Unit but also of the French authorities.
On both sides of the Atlantic, Teodorin aroused the authorities’ attention with spending sprees of truly mind-boggling scale, vastly out of proportion with his $81,600 annual salary as minister of forestry and agriculture in his father’s cabinet. In Paris last September, authorities investigating “ill-gotten gains” seized Teodorin’s collection of exotic and expensive cars including two Bugattis, a Maserati, a Ferrari, a Porsche and a Rolls Royce.
The French issued an international arrest warrant after he failed to appear in court to answer questions about the origins of his riches.
In the United States, the Justice Department has started legal proceedings to seize Teodorin’s $30 million mansion in Malibu on the coast of California, his $38 million Gulfstsream jet and other possessions. The department estimates that he spent more than $300 million buying property and assets on four continents between 2000 and 2011.
Most of the money, according to U.S. authorities, came from kickbacks from the export of timber, the country’s second-most important export commodity after oil. The discovery of large oil reserves in the mid-1990s catapultedEquatorial Guinea into the league of oil-rich nations. But the oil wealth has not trickled down to many of the country’s 700,000 inhabitants — less than 2 percent of Gross Domestic Product goes on public health and even less on education.
All this makes Malabo an odd place for a summit on Africa Rising and a group dedicated to the memory of a human rights champion an odd organization to arrange it. Which on Aug. 3 prompted a public call by the Human Rights Foundation for the event to be canceled.
The idea is to shame invited dignitaries into staying away. The chances of that happening look remote.
PHOTO: Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo attends the opening ceremony of the African Nations Cup soccer tournament in Estadio de Bata “Bata Stadium” in Bata January 21, 2012. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh