UNESCO award in name of Equatorial Guinea president causes uproar

The Obamas pose in 2009 with Teodoro Obiang Nguema and his wife, Constancia Mangue de Obiang.
The Obamas pose in 2009 with Teodoro Obiang Nguema and his wife, Constancia Mangue de Obiang. (Lawrence Jackson/white House)
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By Al Kamen
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Back in September 2008, the European Union, joined by the United States and Norway, objected when the executive board of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) agreed to set up a life sciences award in the name of Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, to be endowed for five years by a fine $3 million gift from Obiang.

The initiative seemed to stall for a while, especially after some reform candidates won top spots on the 57-nation board. But then in April, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said she was going to pick the first three award winners.

The human rights crowd went wild, noting that Obiang, in power only since 1979 and supposedly elected with a nifty 95 percent of the vote (Saddam Hussein would have been jealous), ran the oil-rich country (pop. 1 million) amid constant State Department reports of "arbitrary arrest, detention, and incommunicado detention; harassment and deportation of foreign residents with limited due process; judicial corruption" and so on.

The administration, apparently seeing a loser issue and not wanting to ignite an ugly controversy of former Western colonial powers confronting independent African states, adopted a low-key diplomatic approach.

But then Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the subcommittee overseeing U.S. money to UNESCO, wrote to Bokova on May 20 seeking "clarification" about the award, because "credible reports" said Obiang and his family have stolen "possibly billions of dollars" from the people of that country and "it seems highly likely" that the $3 million donation "came from corruption, kickbacks and other theft."

That little grenade sparked an uproar. The Canadians weighed in strongly, as did other nations. The African countries held back.

On Friday, the government of Equatorial Guinea returned fire, saying critics have waged an "absurd, cynical [and] hypocritical campaign" to block the prize. "In this case," the statement said, "we have no doubt that the entities that created this controversy are showing their true colonialist, discriminatory, racist and prejudiced identity by not accepting that an African president can confer an award of this kind."

That same day, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu of South Africa issued a blunt statement saying that UNESCO, "a beacon for hope and development . . . is allowing itself to burnish the unsavory reputation of a dictator." Obiang's regime "has been marked by corruption and abuse," Tutu said, and the money should go to people in that country "rather than to glorify their president." Tutu never was one to mince words.

On Monday, David Killion, the U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, wrote to Bokova to say that Washington is in "support for your dedicated efforts to resolve" the controversy and to ask her "to suspend plans for awarding the prize" and provide time to figure out a solution.

Early Tuesday, the UNESCO executive board, meeting in Paris, agreed, with the support of some African states, agreed to study it further. That probably will defer the resolution until fall.

The leading contenders for the prize -- Korea's Kim Jong Il, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe -- are said to be preparing a statement condemning the delay.

From Hill to mound

Hurry! Seats may still be available -- actually, they're free -- for The Game of the Week. No, not Nats phenom Stephen Strasburg against the Chicago White Sox this weekend. No, it's the 7 p.m. showdown Wednesday at Guy Mason Park as the House/Senate/Dem/GOP women's softball team challenges the Hill press.

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