Turtle Bay

UNESCO backs away from Obiang’s millions

It’s never been so hard to give money away. For more than three years, Equatorial Guinea’s oil-rich dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has been struggling to convince the U.N. Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to accept $3 million to administer a life-sciences prize in his name. The effort, which has set off a storm ...

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

It’s never been so hard to give money away.

For more than three years, Equatorial Guinea’s oil-rich dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has been struggling to convince the U.N. Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to accept $3 million to administer a life-sciences prize in his name.

The effort, which has set off a storm of criticism from critics of that government, ran into trouble again this week as UNESCO’s lawyer counseled the Paris-based U.N. agency not to touch the money, according to a copy of the internal advisory obtained by Turtle Bay, without further review of the source of the funding.

In 2008, UNESCO established the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences, and wrote a $3 million check to fund awards for individuals who have achieved advances in the field that have improved the well-being of Africans.

But the money has never been spent and the prize has been mired in controversy ever since.

Critics of the regime — including a coalition of human rights groups, anti-corruption advocates, and EquatoGuinean exiles — maintain that the Obiang is dipping into public funds to underwrite a costly prize to burnish his personal image on the world stage.

They say the money would be put to better use improving the standard of living within Equatorial Guinea, a country with a per capita GDP on par with many European countries but where the vast majority of citizens live in abject poverty.

Last November, Obiang sought to overcome opposition to the prize by removing his name and change the prize to the UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize. But that clearly wasn’t’ enough. A UNESCO working group established last year to determine whether to approve the award failed to reach consensus last week, leaving it to the UNESCO’s board of governors, who are meeting through Friday of this week, to make a decision. They will take up the matter on Wednesday, but it may have to be delayed even further.

In an internal advisory, obtained by Turtle Bay, UNESCO’s lawyer Maria Vicien-Miburn, said that Equatorial Guinea had initially proposed that the prize be funded through a non-profit organization, called the Obiang Nguema Mbasogo Foundation for the Preservation of Life.

But last month, Equatorial Guinea’s Minister for Education and Science Joaquin Mbana Nchama informed UNESCO that the funds for the prize actually came from the state treasury. Ten days later, on Feb. 22, the government’s U.N. delegation sent a note to UNESCO stating that "the donor of the prize is from now on the government of Equatorial Guinea."

"In light of these two recent communications from the government it is clear that the Obiang Foundation is not — or is no longer — the donor of the prize funds, as required by the Statutes adopted by the Executive Board. Accordingly, there is a material discrepancy between the Prize Statutes and the Government’s explanations in its recent communications with respect to the source of the funding of the prize. Under these circumstances, the Legal Office could not advise the Director General to use the funds currently in UNESCO accounts for implementation of the prize."

In the meantime, Obiang’s government has been seeking credit for other awards.

In December, the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation hosted President Obiang as its guest of honor at its Beacon of Africa Award. President Obiang, who was then serving as the rotating president of the African Union, received the award on behalf of the African organization.

But Equatorial Guinea’s embassy announced, erroneously, that the award had been given to President Obiang.

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Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch