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Several months ago, we learned that the ruler of Equatorial Guinea, Obiang Nguema Mbasogo had donated millions of dollars to the United Nations cultural arm, UNESCO, to fund a prize in honor of . . . .himself. A gracious gesture for a man who rules one of the world’s poorest, most corrupt, and resource-rich countries. Could the millions he offered to donate be better used to fund poverty alleviation or education in Equatorial Guinea (EG)? How about the billions of dollars his government receives annually from oil sales? And should the UN’s cultural division honor this autocrat with a prize in his name? What message does that send to those working for good governance, human rights, and sustainable development?

After much lobbying and public outcry, the Executive Board of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) announced in June that they were delaying the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences in order to allow for additional consultation. It is now becoming clear that UNESCO will decide in October whether to cancel the prize.

Today, over 90 organizations, including EarthRights Internation, wrote to UNESCO to urge its Executive Board members to permanently cancel the Obiang Prize. This letter continues a campaign by NGOs, civil society organizations, academics, Nobel Prize winners, and government officials who are protesting the award and have called for its cancellation.

The people of EG live in dire poverty while Obiang and his cohorts live a life of luxury. While the GDP for the nation has climbed dramatically since oil was discovered in the mid-1990s and its wealth per capita is now $30,000, these numbers grossly misrepresent the country, as the majority of citizens live on less than a dollar a day. Instead of the oil revenues benefiting the citizens of EG, the money is spent on the luxurious lifestyles of Obiang and his family and friends.

The amount of money that Obiang’s son spent on luxury goods from 2004-2007 almost doubles the government’s 2005 budget for education.  Let’s say that again: The amount of money that Obiang’s son spent on luxury goods from 2004-2007 almost doubles the government’s 2005 budget for education. The country spent a mere 0.6% of its budget in 2003-2007 on educational services, which is the second lowest amount allotted towards education in the world and the lowest of all African countries.

Obiang’s track record speaks for itself: endemic corruption and revenue mismanagement, violations of the freedom of expression and association, illegal torture and detention, and a dismal record of providing funding for essential social services. Freedom of the press is limited at best with most press agencies run by people close to the administration, including one radio station that is run by his son.

Looking at Equatorial Guinea’s current state of affairs, the idea of UNESCO creating an award promoting “improvements in quality of life” sponsored by Obiang is absurd and makes a mockery of the organization.

Today’s letter follows an earlier petition, released by our colleagues at EG Justice and signed by ERI and many other organizations and individuals, which called on UNESCO “to make every effort to abolish the Obiang prize and to decline any alternative proposal that contemplates establishing a different prize associated with President Obiang’s name or financed with money from him.” 

Recent reports demonstrate Obiang’s behavior has not changed. Taking a page from Burma’s ruling generals, Obiang has hired American lobbyist Lanny J. Davis, reportedly for $1,000,000 a year to help with his image make-over from a repressive, corrupt dictator to a democratic, progressive leader. And now there are reports that he is planning on buying a Barroso-class corvette, a Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucano, and a Embraer 190 passenger transport,  the last two with estimated costs of US$9 million and US$40 million, respectively.

It’s time for UNESCO to cancel this prize and rescue their tarnished reputation.


Katherine Kovich recently completed an internship with EarthRights International’s campaigns department in Washington, D.C. Katherine is in her last year at Louisiana State University majoring in Sociology and Anthropology and has worked on post-Katrina recovery efforts in New Orleans, recently completing an oral history project on Urban Ethnography of the Lower Ninth Ward.