The African heads of state who converged on the capital of Equatorial Guinea this summer are used to life's finer things — yet even they were impressed.
The minuscule nation located on the coast of Central Africa spent several times its yearly education budget to build a new $800 million resort in which to house the presidents attending this summer's African Union summit.
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. 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.
Western diplomats say that the charm offensive worked, and on Friday the United Nations' cultural arm may be forced to create a prize named after Equatorial Guinea's notoriously corrupt president, due to a resolution passed in June by the presidents staying at the lavish resort.
If that happens President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, a man whose regime is accused of gross human rights violations, will be associated with an organization whose stated mission is the promotion of peace and human rights through cultural dialogue.
During the AU summit this summer, Obiang succeeded in getting the body to pass a motion calling on UNESCO to approve a prize named in his honor.
Armed with this resolution, the 13 African delegates on UNESCO's executive board are threatening to force a vote on the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo Prize for Research in the Life Sciences as early as Friday when the board meets in Paris, said five officials taking part in the discussion.
The $3 million prize was first proposed in 2008 and UNESCO initially agreed to create it, only to suspend it as outrage erupted over the provenance of the money and accusations of abuses by Obiang against the people of his Maryland-sized nation.
A senior Western diplomat in France who is close to the negotiation, said that Obiang, as the rotating chairman of the African Union, forced through a resolution during the AU summit that unified the African position.
"In the past our ability to keep the prize in the deep freezer depended on divisions within the African group," said the diplomat, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter. "At UNESCO on the executive board, the African group makes up a large percentage of the board — and when they are completely unified they can always count on complete support from the Arab group."
Together, the Arab and African delegations account for 20 out of 58 votes. Thirty is needed for the measure to pass; fewer if some governments abstain. The diplomat said the Equatoguinean delegation has been hanging out in the halls outside of the board's meeting room in Paris, trying to influence the vote of undecided delegates when they step outside. Among the ambassadors from Africa, there are misgivings about the prize and several have privately said they feel embarrassed voting for it, but believe their hands are tied due to the African Union resolution.
"What Obiang has been able to set up here is a dynamic by which the ambassadors are constrained — their backs are against the wall because their position has been mandated by their heads of state," said the official.
The diplomat's account of the situation was confirmed by a senior European diplomat who is also on the UNESCO executive board, as well as by leading rights groups including New York-based Human Rights Watch and London-based Global Witness which have been at the forefront of trying to stop the creation of the prize.
The Western nations opposing the measure are hoping to avoid a vote on Friday, the diplomats say, on the argument that forcing one is against UNESCO's tradition. They fear that if it goes to a vote, the measure will pass, forcing the body to implement the prize.
Obiang seized power in a coup 32 years ago after toppling the former leader, who was executed. The United Nations Rapporteur on Torture toured the country's prisons in 2008 and determined that torture is systematic, including using electroshocks through starter cables attached to the detainees' body with alligator clips.
In February, the government imposed a blackout on news regarding the Arab Spring uprising. A disc jockey who dared refer to Libya during his music program had his microphone cut off minutes into his show and the program was pulled off the air for two months.
Another concern is the provenance of the $3 million that Obiang has said he will donate to endow the prize. The Obiang family has become fabulously wealthy during the president's reign and is accused of pilfering the nation's oil wealth.
The United States Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held hearings to discuss how Obiang's son used lawyers, realtors and bankers to help him transfer $110 million of suspect funds to the U.S. The money was used to purchase a $30 million mansion in Malibu and a $38 million plane, according to a separate Justice Department inquiry.
On Thursday, French officials in Paris seized 16 luxury cars, including a Bugatti Veyron worth more than $1.3 million allegedly belonging to Obiang's son, in a probe into claims that the Equatoguinean leader had misspent public funds in France. And earlier this month, a lawyer close to former French President Jacques Chirac claimed in a memoir that Obiang had tried to give the French government suitcases of cash in order to secure favor.
Equatorial Guinea's Minister of Information Jeronimo Osa Osa Ecoro told The Associated Press by telephone from his nation's capital that the claims of theft, corruption and abuse by Obiang and his entourage are unfounded.
"They want to dirty the image of our country. This is a nation that wants to share $3 million of its money for a UNESCO prize that will save human lives — this is a gift to humanity!" he said, adding: "There is no poverty in Equatorial Guinea, and as for the respect of human rights, which country can say that it respects human rights 100 percent of the time?"
In an Op Ed piece published Thursday online in Think Africa Press, Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu said that the people of Equatorial Guinea need justice, not a $3 million science prize funded by their president.
"In numerous speeches to international audiences, including many in his role as the rotating African Union chair, President Obiang has stated his commitment to democracy, human rights, and good governance. His words, however, ring hollow since they are often not applied inside his own country," Tutu wrote. "It is unfortunate that the time and resources expended by President Obiang to establish the prize are not directed at implementing the reforms that he regularly mentions."
In Equatorial Guinea, the new town of Sipopo was built for nearly $800 million. It's an investment that the country's opposition leader Placido Mico said is an insult to the nation's population. He points to the country's 2011 budget, where only $40 million is allocated in the line for education. He said it appears that the sole purpose of the resort was to impress the heads of state of AU nations, and possibly to lure tourists.
Equatoguineans who have tried to go there after the end of the summit were turned away and told that they needed a special authorization.
West Africa Bureau Chief Rukmini Callimachi is based in Dakar. She was in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea in July to cover the African Union summit. Associated Press writer Pierre-Antoine Souchard in Paris contributed to this report.
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