Obiang’s Prize: improving life or creating a legacy…

October 11, 2010 — Leave a comment

The US wants to nix an award offered by a president of a small but oil rich West African nation. Africa, true to form, applauded the award though behind closed doors dissent was vocalised. But publicly Africans support Africans. How else could Mugabe, Taylor and others survive so long?

Six years ago I left Equatorial Guinea – a small, some might say despotic, country snuggled under Cameroon and tucked above and beside Gabon. If you look closely you’ll find it tucked into the fold of the map of sub-Saharan Africa. I lived on the island part, Bioko, for two and half years. I had the privilege of, among other things, teaching English in one of the barios.

The bario, a conglomeration of shacks cobbled together with filched timbers, cardboard, corrugated iron and the occasional breeze block was on the Luba Road and was known as N’mbili – a bastardisation of the words New Buildings and originally put together to house Nigerian labourers. Windows were not an option, and doors were often a strip of faded fabric that barely fluttered in the fetid air.
Hola blanca or buenas dias maestra or sometimes good day teacher followed my passage as I made my way along the alleys between the shanties leaning haphazardly against each other, and which were in the dry season hard-packed rutted rows of red soil. Human effluent mingled with a trickle of water that seeped along the narrow gutters from the occasional stand pipes. But in ‘the wet’ the gullies turned into a torrent of gushing water, trash and rodents that spilled over churning the soil into a quagmire that sucked the flip-flops and shoes from feet struggling to get through.

Fire was a constant threat. Overhead a web of wires criss-crossed the air, dangling in lazy loops from poles that leaned at alarming angles, skimming the heads of taller occupants of the bario. In the doorways of many of the shacks women sat on stools shredding vegetables or braiding hair. Men lounged against flimsy walls or in ramshackle bars. Children scattered around playing with tins and hoops. Babies were washed in pails of water scooped from the gullies. Mosquitoes regularly brought malaria though thanks to the oil companies, who initiated a spraying programme, that threat is subsiding.

The school I taught in, run by Spanish nuns, was a breeze block building with a tin roof, a door and shuttered windows with wooden bars. Rain impeded teaching as students and teachers alike dodged steady drips filtering through the holes in the roof. The sound of the lashing rain deafened all. Sunshine made us swelter.

This then is the country ruled by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. The man who in his own words has a direct line to God. The man who in 2008 donated three million dollars, delivered in a cash-stuffed suitcase to the UNESCO offices in Paris. The money to be the majority donated to the UNESCO-Obiang Prize awarded to scientists dedicated to improving “the quality of human life”. No award has yet been made due to the concerns of the US and Europe as to the dubious integrity of the donor.

I had another role in Equatorial Guinea that necessitated a number of meetings with President Obiang. I was nervous the first time. I had read the articles, heard the stories and seen the schools, hospitals and hovels. His urbanity though was evident – in his precisely knotted tie, fine wool suit, his shucked cuffs and highly polished shoes though his brilliant smile did not reach his eyes, difficult to see behind transitional lenses. He spoke softly in French in deference to my boss but switched to Spanish, the official language, to ask me whether I was enjoying my time in his country.

Por supuesto su excelencio, I replied.

He spoke of improvements being made, of an up-coming contract to be signed with a British company, and of his hopes. I left feeling buoyant. Feeling perhaps the stories of torture, of poisonings, of corruption were exaggerated. Perhaps some of the enormous wealth coming from the oil would actually be spent on improving the lives of his people. Perhaps.

Human rights, or lack of them, are an issue in Equatorial Guinea. Cruelty and corruption cascades down from the top. Used as a template for Frederick Forsyth’s book The Dogs of War, and in 2004 in the news as the final destination for a planeload of guns and mercenaries intent on overthrowing the Government, the country is ruled by the Obiang clan – husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters – though that doesn’t necessarily guarantee safety. The current president did after all instigate the coup that deposed, and subsequently shot, the previous vicious ruler – his uncle, in 1979 paving the way for his own fiefdom.

But with the new man came high hopes. But high hopes often lead to bitter disappointment. In Equatorial Guinea that has been mostly the case. A dual carriage-way leads from the airport, no longer a Nissan-hut but a two-story building, to Malabo Dos, the new area of Malabo, the capital city. The buildings are shiny and grand but where are the new schools, or even old schools refurbished with books? Where is public housing? Where is the supposed democracy?

With subsequent meetings I began to understand the President was merely scanning the future, laying the links for his legacy. He signed on dotted lines of various treatise and initiatives, but rarely fulfilled all the obligations required. He talked the talk but as I left the country I accepted he did not walk the walk.

Perhaps his advisors should suggest he use that suitcaseful of three million dollars for the humans, and their rights, in his own country before he names an award for improving the “quality of human life” in other nations. Doesn’t charity begin at home?

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