When Africa’s longest-serving dictator, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang, faced his first election in 1996, he won with 98 percent of the vote. His percentages in subsequent elections would never reach that high, dropping to 97 percent by the time of his fourth electoral contest, in 2009. Not to worry — the elections were monitored by the Institute for Democratic Strategies and the International Foundation for Election Systems, observer groups that later were found to include Washington lobbyists on the regime’s payroll.
Mr. Obiang first came to power in 1979 after overthrowing his uncle and executing him by firing squad. Since the discovery of oil in the country in the 1990s, his remaining family members have spent the revenues like Saudi sheiks. According to news reports, the Obiang regime by 2003 had become the biggest depositor of the infamous Riggs Bank, with $700 million in its U.S. account, “some of it hauled $1 million at a time into Riggs’s [Dupont] Circle branch in shrink-wrapped, 20-pound bundles.”
News reports also reported last year that as far back as 2001, Teodorin Obiang, the president’s son, purchased a mansion in Bel Air, Calif., for $6.5 million. Not long after, he upgraded to a $35 million property in Malibu. According to The Washington Post, he also bought “eight Ferraris, seven Rolls-Royces, four Mercedes-Benzes, two Lamborghinis, a Porsche, an Aston Martin and a Maserati.” Back home, three-quarters of Equatorial Guinea’s population lives on less than $2 a day.
In 2003, a state-controlled radio station declared that Mr. Obiang was “the country’s god,” who had “all power over men and things.” It also announced that because he was “in permanent contact with the Almighty,” he had the right to kill “without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell.” The last part would come in handy, as a 2008 State Department human rights report noted “unlawful killings by security forces; government-sanctioned kidnappings; systematic torture of prisoners and detainees by security forces.”
When interviewed by CBS‘ “60 Minutes” for a story on the Obiangs in 2009, former U.S. ambassador to Equatorial Guinea John Bennett described the family practice vividly: “Usually the prisoners, when they’re brought in, there are very clear signs of torture. Sometimes they can’t walk. Or barely can walk. Because the bottoms of their feet have been beaten off. If you’ve ever seen a person limp on both legs, you know you’re in Equatorial Guinea.”
Despite that record, the Obiangs are set to host a “human rights” summit on Aug. 20, sponsored by the Washington-based Leon H. Sullivan Foundation, whose namesake marched with Martin Luther King and helped end apartheid in South Africa. The civil rights leader’s daughter, Hope Sullivan Masters, runs the foundation and has been defending the decision to host the summit in Malabo, the country’s capital.
Rather than heed the warnings of human rights groups that have asked that the venue be changed or the event canceled, Ms. Masters accused them of harboring a “colonialist” mindset: “Some would still like to be in the position of controlling the people and the resources of Africa,” she declared on the foundation’s website. Ms. Masters’ impolitic response is stunning, considering the depth of poverty and corruption in Equatorial Guinea, a problem her father spent years working to solve throughout the continent.
When questioned by U.S. News & World Report on whether it receives funding from the Obiang government, the foundation’s spokesman, Aly Ramji, admitted: “We cannot do the summits without that support. So yes, the Equatorial Guinea government is supporting us.” Mr. Ramji’s confirmation came grudgingly, after months of pressure from reporters, though he would not provide any figures. It has since been reported that the foundation has received funding from the Obiangs for several years.
Last year, the Sullivan Foundation presented Mr. Obiang with a Beacon for Africa award at its 2011 Sullivan Awards dinner. When human rights groups complained to the press, Ms. Masters claimed via her Twitter account that the award was for the African Union, and Mr. Obiang was only accepting it on the group’s behalf. Mr. Obiang, however, put out an international press release touting the award as an imprimatur on his leadership and “democratic reforms.”
In the Sullivan Foundation’s announcement of the award, Ms. Masters cited President George H.W. Bush’s words calling her late father a “voice of reason” in the fight for civil rights: “I am proud to continue his work today. I am privileged to have had Leon Sullivan’s voice of reason guide my entire life,” she declared.
On Friday, John Hope Bryant, the scheduled keynote speaker of the summit, announced that he was pulling out, as has the Rev. Jesse Jackson. A number of high-level names that were listed as part of the program have stated either that they will not be attending or that they were not aware of the summit.
While several human rights groups are calling for Ms. Masters to cancel the summit, she and chairman Andrew Young have refused so far. It appears that the foundation’s highest-level supporters may be running for cover. Since the organization was founded, former President Bill Clinton had been listed as an “honorary chairman,” but all references to his position have been scrubbed from the website. All of this may be a sign that it is time once again for Ms. Masters to heed her father’s voice of reason and cancel what would be a mockery of the human rights for which he fought.
Jon Perdue is director of Latin America programs at the Fund for American Studies and author of The War of All the People.