A controversial meeting in Malabo
Thousands of delegates, including 16 heads of state, celebrities, philanthropists, billionaire business leaders, entrepreneurs, sports personalities, and academics are converging on the capital of Equatorial Guinea, Malabo.
The luminaries, such as the newly democratically elected leaders of Egypt and Senegal, the interim President of Libya and President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, will gather for the “Africa Rising” summit organised by the US-based Leon Sullivan Foundation.
The idea is to bring African leaders together with the continent’s best-and-brightest minds to figure out how to harness the continent’s vast resources, natural and human, for the economic and social empowerment of African peoples.
The focus will be on issues such as economic development, food security, agriculture, regional integration, governance and youth.
Two human rights and civil liberties organizations, the London based, Global Witness and New York-based Human Rights Foundation, have criticized the organizers of the event for choosing to hold the summit in Malabo.
The organizations point to evidence of rights violations, including a lack of freedoms and corruption, as the reason why the event should not be held in Malabo.
They accuse President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who seized power in a coup more than 30 years ago, of using the event to try to whitewash decades of alleged abuses by his government. Some are calling for the event to be cancelled.
Despite this appeal, the week-long event will go ahead on Monday.
The Sullivan Foundation, created in memory of the late American activist Leon Sullivan, a confidant of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, and who campaigned against apartheid in South Africa, has hit back at the critics.
In letter from Sullivan’s daughter, Hope, on the organizations website reads:
“Under the moral misnomer of a selfless mission focused on advancing ‘human rights’ in the developing world, these (‘human rights’) organizations use cheap buzz-words (against the event), without fact checking or simple truth verification of their outrageous claims of ongoing abuse and corruption, without any effort or inclination to actually come to Equatorial Guinea to verify their statements.”
The organizers go on to defend hosting the event in Malabo by explaining that the venue was a natural choice, because Obiang was recently elected to hold the presidency of the African Union.
The organizers say criticism of the choice of venue, Malabo, is an attempt by rights and civil liberties organizations to deny Africans exactly what they claim to want to promote in Africa: freedom of choice and self-determination.
The Sullivan website continued:
“It would appear that some would still like to be in the position of controlling the people of Africa. We can call their missions those of human rights, or apply whatever label we might choose.
But the truth lies in the blatant disrespect of the voice and choice of the African people. This summit may not occur in a country that others might choose, but it might very well be a teachable moment for some individuals to acknowledge the irony of their arrogance and an opportunity to finally accept the tenets of the lofty ideals of democracy – whether they agree with the result of the process or not.
Democracy and human rights are rooted in the belief that the governed shall choose their own path, not a colonial master, and not a bitter angry blogger who has never set foot on the soil which he chooses to disrupt.”
A quick check of the Global Witness and Human Rights Foundation website shows no information about first-hand field research into abuses in Equatorial Guinea, or evidence of work with locally based partner organizations in the country.
It could, however, be the case that both organizations may have been denied access to Equatorial Guinea.
But earlier this month it was reported that the French authorities seized the $124m Paris mansion of Obiang’s son, Teodorin, as part of a money laundering investigation.
In October last year, the US Justice Department said it would recover assets worth more than $70m from Teodorin, including a number of luxury cars. These accounts give credibility to what the organizations allege about corruption in Equatorial Guinea.
The question is, does holding this event in Malabo sanction alleged human rights and civil liberties abuses and corruption by Obiang? There are different answers for different people. And, for many Africans outside of Equatorial Guinea, the answer is not necessarily affirmative.
Many Africans seem more concerned about finding solutions and ideas for economic and social empowerment, no matter where meetings and discussions to come up with them take place.
That empowerment means jobs, improved infrastructure, security, sanitation, and access to healthcare, and not necessarily social freedoms and civil liberties. Equatorial Guinea is a good example of development progress in these areas in the region.
But for those in Equatorial Guinea, who may have had their rights infringed, suffered abuse or violations, missed out on opportunities because of corruption, holding the event in Malabo is to condone the wrongdoing done to them by the government.
Even so, the fact that some of Africa’s newest and most renowned democrats, like the former president of Ghana, John Kufuor, are sharing a platform with Obiang may overshadow or crowd out these voices.
It may also weaken the argument of those human rights and civil liberties organizations opposed to seeing the event hosted in Malabo.
Supporters of the event argue that perhaps the answer to ending the alleged abuse and corruption that human rights and civil liberties organizations decry in Equatorial Guinea is not isolating the country and its leader.
They say the Sullivan summit may be just the antidote needed to bring about greater transparency in what goes on in Equatorial Guinea, and therefore inevitably improve human rights, civil liberties, and reduce corruption.
Yvonne Ndege can be followed on Twitter at: @yvonnendege