He is the dictator’s dictator: a spectacular kleptocrat who seized power in a coup and has presided over Equatorial Guinea for more than three decades, imprisoning political opponents, censoring hostile media coverage and rigging Presidential elections, which he has occasionally won with more than 95 per cent of the vote.
Now Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, whose appetite for the proceeds of thuggish corruption saw him described by the US authorities as the head of “an ongoing family criminal conspiracy,” is attempting to perform bizarre career volte face. Despite his status as Africa’s longest-serving dictator, he will this month seek to rebrand himself on the international stage - as a principled advocate for human rights.
His PR attempt begins on 20 August, when Obiang is scheduled to welcome 4,000 delegates, including world leaders, Hollywood actors, Emmy-winning pop stars, famous athletes, and a cross-section of US television celebrities, to the city of Malabo, which – for currently-murky reasons – has been chosen to host one of 2012's biggest liberal talking shops: the ninth biennial Sullivan Summit.
The event is highly prestigious - previous guests have included Hillary Clinton, George W Bush, and Colin Powell - lasts four days, and according to publicity materials will pursue: “economic empowerment and human development for the nations of Africa.” A guide to the proceedings, which dubs Obiang “His Excellency,” claims that hundreds of political leaders and “powerhouse intellectuals” will attend.
It has been organised by the Leon H Sullivan Foundation, a charity which campaigns for human rights. The Foundation's eponymous founder, who died in 2001, was one of Martin Luther King’s right hand men during the civil rights era, and later achieved global prominence as an outspoken opponent of apartheid in South Africa.
Despite this noble heritage, the Sullivan Foundation has agreed to appoint Obiang as official “host” of the Summit, which boasts the stated aim of fostering: “an atmosphere of open dialogue about the state of human rights and the interconnected issues of modern Africa." Obiang will also deliver its opening night speech.
“This is the equivalent of organising a conference on free speech in North Korea, then getting Kim Jong-un to cut the ribbon,” complained Thor Halvorssen, the founder of the Human Rights Foundation, an international pressure group which last night called for the event to be cancelled. “You literally could not pick a worse place to host a summit on African human rights. It reeks of hypocrisy and corruption.”
A list of celebrity guests obtained by The Independent reveals that the Foundation has offered all-expenses-paid trips to the conference to dozens of public figures and minor celebrities, including Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, actors Alfre Woodard and Tatyana Ali, singer Stevie Wonder, and the former basketball star Earl “the Pearl” Monroe. Some have also been offered money to attend. It remains unclear how many, if any, of them have accepted.
The logic by which the Sullivan Foundation has leapt into bed with President Obiang also remains unclear. A spokesman for the organisation, Aly Ramji, did not respond to emails and calls from The Independent seeking comment on both the decision to hold the conference in Equatorial Guinea and the question of whether the Foundation or its executives will profit from it.
Today, advocates for democracy and human rights in Equatorial Guinea sent letters to the Foundation’s board asking them to intervene to cancel the conference. In addition to Mr Clinton, its members include such grandees as King Mohammed VI of Morocco, and Andrew Young, the Jimmy Carter-era US Ambassador to the United Nations.
The Human Rights Foundation’s letter, which has been seen by The Independent, says that event will “glorify Africa’s longest-serving dictator” and castigates the organisation for entering into a partnership with a man who “heads one of the world’s most repressive regimes and is accused of carrying out crimes against humanity”.
Running to four pages, it also details Obiang and his family’s spectacular corruption. While oil and gas wealth has raised Equatorial Guinea’s per-capita GDP to $35,000, a number roughly equivalent to that of France and Japan, two thirds of its citizens live on less than a dollar a day, life expectancy is 50, and the country has some of Africa’s highest infant mortality rates.
Obiang and his family have nonetheless enjoyed a gilded existence, siphoning-off billions of dollars of oil and other supposedly-public revenue. They are currently facing prosecution in France, Spain, and the US. Transparency International’s ranks the country 172 out of 182, in its league table of the world’s most corrupt nations.
A letter to the Foundation from EG Justice, a US based lobby group, reminded board members that a recent US Department of Justice lawsuit revealed that Obiang’s son and heir apparent - who has an official salary of $6k a month - acquired a $30m Los Angeles mansion, surrounded by its own golf course, along with several private jets, a fleet of supercars, and tens of millions of dollars worth of impressionist artwork and Michael Jackson memorabilia.
The letter expressed “grave disappointment” at the Foundation's scheduling of the conference, and pointed out that Obiang's son is currently the subject of an international arrest warrant. The event, it claimed, will represent an “endorsement of a regime characterised by widespread human rights abuses.”
Meanwhile the pressure group Global Witness said that the Conference marks the latest in a series of efforts by Obiang, who is 70, to clean his legacy. Last month, he managed to persuade UNESCO to allow him to sponsor an international science prize. Human rights groups called that decision “shameful.”
“We know that Obiang has fairly expensive contracts with a number of PR and lobbying organisations,” said Robert Palmer, a Global Witness spokesman. “This conference fits a broad pattern in which he seems to be using them to create links with reputable bodies who can give his regime a veneer of respectability. The way he’s sought to co-opt organisations like the Sullivan Foundation, or UNESCO, is almost Orwellian.”
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