Equatorial Guinea: African Solidarity for Whom?

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In March 2012, all 14 African nations on UNESCO's current executive board voted to approve a prize sponsored by Teodoro Obiang, president of Equatorial Guinea. They did so under the guise of "African solidarity," dismissing a host of African voices, including those of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Acheba, Graca Machel, and many others, who had publicly urged UNESCO to abandon the misguided and inappropriate prize.

The African delegates at UNESCO ignored African voices and falsely claimed the prize's opponents were part of a "Western" "neo-colonialist" effort to silence Africa.

We have both worked for years to defend Africans' basic rights and civil liberties. This work has taught us the meaning of African solidarity.

Solidarity means standing with ordinary people on the side of justice-not aligning with the powerful and self-interested when they ignore basic ethics.

It is time for us Africans to ask ourselves: Who represents Africa, and how? What does African solidarity mean to us?

These questions come at a critical time for the continent. Popular uprisings in North Africa have challenged the legitimacy of highly corrupt and repressive governments. In response, many African rulers are opportunistically invoking notions of African solidarity to deflect criticism from themselves and their peers.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Equatorial Guinea, where President Obiang has ruled for nearly 33 years. President Obiang, then chairman of the African Union, blamed the Libyan uprising on destabilizing external forces and called for African solutions to African problems. President Obiang's government banned state-controlled media from reporting on events in Libya. Only after the rebels had unseated Muammar Qaddafi did the African Union belatedly acknowledge the genuine frustrations of the Libyan people, who suffered under Qaddafi for 42 years.

President Obiang's regime has accumulated an abysmal record on corruption and human rights. President Obiang or members of his family are the subject of ongoing corruption investigations in France, Spain, and the United States. In the past six months, the French and United States governments have moved to seize luxury items reportedly valued at more than US$120 million-including sports cars, an extravagant seaside mansion, a Gulfstream jet, and Michael Jackson memorabilia-believed to have been purchased by President Obiang's eldest son and government minister Teodoro Nguema using money obtained through corruption. On April 4, a French prosecutor approved an international arrest warrant against Teodoro Nguema on charges of money laundering and fraud.

Yet one cannot criticize the regime without fear of being harassed or worse. Critical voices inside the country risk arbitrary arrest, illegal detention, and torture. Critical voices outside the country are accused of blackmail and racism, or are dismissed as perpetrators of an alleged neocolonialist conspiracy to destabilize the regime.

President Obiang has been using his country's oil wealth to secure the loyalty of his political peers across the continent. African leaders have been lining up to defend and honor President Obiang, and to endorse the "development model" of a regime rife with corruption.

In January, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda-whose 26-year tenure has taken an increasingly troubling turn away from democracy-called President Obiang his "role model" and presented him with the Excellent Order of the Pearl of Africa Grand Master medal for his supposed good leadership and adherence to democratic principles. In October 2011, South African President Zuma called President Obiang his "dear friend and brother." Ghanaian President Mills praised President Obiang's "excellent leadership of the AU" and his government's efforts to develop the country economically and democratically.

King Mswati III of Swaziland bestowed his country's Order of the Lion medal on President Obiang in January for presiding over rapid development in Equatorial Guinea. King Mswati later effused that his country, which faces a severe budget shortfall, should emulate Equatorial Guinea's hosting of the Africa Cup of Nations tournament and build stadiums to do so.

It is true that President Obiang's regime has invested some of the country's substantial oil wealth in infrastructure projects. Yet its development model focuses on highly visible showcase projects seemingly aimed at impressing, while simultaneously under-investing in more mundane yet critical aspects of development like health and education.

Corruption is rampant, and transparency and government accountability are virtually nonexistent.

The government spent a reported $830 million on a luxury resort to host the African Union Summit, and spent millions more to host the Africa Cup of Nations. Currently, it is financing a gleaming new state-of-the art capital in the middle of the rainforest, while most citizens in its existing cities and villages still lack access to reliable running water, electricity, and quality, affordable healthcare.

The development model championed by President Obiang, and praised by other African leaders, confuses "modernization" with "development." New airports, highways, and presidential palaces are popping up across Equatorial Guinea, but for children who attend schools lacking electricity and textbooks, what good is a six-lane highway? When ordinary citizens are removed from their homes and forcibly relocated to make room for new apartment buildings they can't afford, Africans should wonder whose interests our leaders are promoting.

This is a critical moment for Africa. As we saw in North Africa, African solidarity can be mobilized to advance freedom for all. Or, as we have seen more recently, it can be utilized by our leaders to justify regressive policies and politics that promote their own interests and widen the inequality gap.

If Africa is to democratize and eradicate poverty and disease, we the people have to play a more decisive role to redefine African solidarity and hold our leaders and representatives accountable.

Andrew Feinstein is a former South African parliamentarian from the African National Congress. He co-founded and co-directs the anti-corruption organization Corruption Watch.

Tutu Alicante is the founder and executive director of EG Justice, an organization focused on improving human rights and governance in his native Equatorial Guinea.

Copyright © 2012 Equatorial Guinea Justice. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com). To contact the copyright holder directly for corrections — or for permission to republish or make other authorized use of this material, click here.

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