Damtew Teferra Ph.D.
Dr. Damtew Teferra is a professor of higher education, the leader of Higher Education and Training Development, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is also the Editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. He may be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Obiang-UNESCO ( https://htmldbprod.bc.edu/pls/htmldb/f?p=2290:4:0::NO:RP,4:P0_CONTENT_ID:116298 ) affair flared up again. But this time around it has got a facelift—and an approval. It is no more called the “Obiang Chair” but the “Unesco-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences”. On March 10, 2012, the 58-member executive board voted to institute the prize, after a controversial vote which angered individuals concerned with human rights, transparency and social justice.
The earlier failed bid called, “Obiang Chair” would have established a chair and named the science prize after President Teodoro Obiang, president of Equatorial Guinea for the past 30 years. Equatorial Guinea is a poor country with a population less than seven hundred thousand and one of the leading oil-rich countries in Africa.
The Hard Fact: The Numbers
The USD $3 million endowment to establish the prize is by all accounts “peanuts” so it is surprising that is has garnered so much international attention. Let’s put this amount into context and assume that the return from this endowment is 5 % annually or USD 150,000. What could this money do? This amount is equivalent to a cost of one medical degree from the US or the annual salary of a P5 employee at UNESCO or the cost of a three-day conference for about 50 participants.
The Best Status Little Money Can Buy: Ill-Informed Strategy?
Regardless of the controversies surrounding Mr. Obiang, the question that comes to mind is “What is the prestige or inspiration or even honor of acquiring such an award, to anyone?” With or without this swirling controversy, it may be difficult for this award to stand with other awards such as the Nyerere Scholarship or a fellow of an African Academy of Sciences because, it is the aura that emanates from the intent, the sources, and the reputation of the benefactors that provides their credibility.
The prominent individuals and institutions that opposed the earlier effort to establish the prize include Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Obama Administration and numerous human rights and transparency organizations. If the intention of Mr. Obiang and his million- dollar facelift advisers is to remake his image without changing the circumstances that tainted it, the controversy has already compromised that intention.
The attempt to put old wine in a new bottle is way too blatant to conceal, even without current international scrutiny. Several other ingenious efforts to embellish the image of personalities such as Mr. Obiang have been tried, but this one is simply too close to the credibility of UNESCO as an international educational, scientific, and cultural institution. Any publicity is not always good publicity, and publicists and image makers should have known better. Furthermore the idea of a cultural, scientific and educational institutions embellishing personalities, is simply unacceptable.
The Bitter, but Concealed, Irony?
If Mr. Obiang were as dedicated to higher education and scientific development in Africa as has been portrayed in this campaign on his behalf, he might have made a similar bequest to organizations and initiatives that would not have provoked the same scrutiny. For example, the African Union Commission, has embarked on a new initiative to establish a Pan-African University. The Nyerere Scholarship has just been revamped by the Commission with the financial support from the European Commission. Coincidentally, Mr Obiang happened to be the President of the African Union Commission, at the time and it is curious that he did not choose to contribute to these grand Pan-African schemes spearheaded by the very institution he had been presiding.
Humble Questions for Unesco
UNESCO is an educational, scientific and cultural organization which is supposed to assume its global leadership in agenda and standard setting through a moral capital, credibility and reputation. It is the collective view of many that such controversies and questionable decisions do not help build its image. It is fair to say that, in helping to embellish someone’s dubious image the institution is tarnishing its own.
But then the questions to the UNESCO Board are:
- Is three million dollars worth compromising the image of the organization, regardless of the reputation (or lack thereof) of the person of Mr. Obiang or any other individual?
- What are the underlying principles the institution defending in blessing such a controversial effort?
- Would the institution walk away from the controversial “fruit”, if the investigation fails to substantiate the discrepancy of the funding source?
- Is the institution so broke that it has to sustain itself by all means necessary, even at the expense of what the director general of the institution calls “risks that might do harm” to its “reputation”?
According to the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/09/world/africa/unesco- backs-divisive-equatorial-guinea-prize.html), March 6 issue, Zimbabwe’s representative to UNESCO blustered following the controversial decision: “We believe that the decision we’ve just taken will send a very important message. … That a lot of good comes out of Africa, and that Africa can and does contribute in international cooperation and is not just a recipient of the good will of others.” Such marginally relevant emotional spin offs from a government representative of a country that have a pitiful history of its own, do not contribute much to the underlying dialogue in protecting the reputation of the institution and fostering the credibility of the Prize.
Humble Questions to President Obiang
Regardless of the strong opinions of critics and pundits who are against your generosity, or your country’s offer, what deeply motivates you to bequeath this money to UNESCO against a wall of resistance? Taking a different trajectory than your other detractors, let us confine the points within the educational and scientific purview.
According to the following excerpt from the African Higher Education: The International Reference Handbook (2003), despite the high level of interest by administrators, faculty, and students, the National University of Equatorial Guinea (La Universidad Nacionale de Guinea Ecuatorial, UNGE), founded only in 1995, has only very rudimentary technological facilities. As of November 2000, the entire university had only one Internet connection, and that was in the rector’s office. The 2 schools on the main campus each had a computer; but other schools have no computers. The library facilities at UNGE are very limited, and books are not available for loan. On the main campus, the library contains approximately 3,500 books in a small room with limited student capacity. Most of the books in the libraries are multiple copies of course texts for students who cannot afford to buy their own texts. The United States Embassy in Yaounde is donating $19,000 to UNGE for its library. [The three-million dollars you are battling to handout UNESCO is more than 150 times than this figure!]
Recent information and data on the extent and pace of progress that has taken place in the country’s institutions are scanty. This as it may, institution building is a long-term effort and spectacular changes are exceptions. So what is your rationale, Mr. Obiang, regardless of the open secret of the intent of your generosity, to cross the international waters under heavy storms, to bequeath resources, when your very country is struggling to build meaningful institutions?
Indeed, if your country has become so affluent in the last several years and all these problems have been effectively addressed, why is that you have not been considering to support regional efforts, such as the African Academy of Sciences, the Pan-African University or the Nyerere Fellowship—two grand schemes of the African Union—just to mention a few.
We are as puzzled as we are curious.
We hope to hear from both parties to help us feature a complete picture of this controversial saga to our readers. We specially demand that Unesco, as an international organization accountable not only to member states but citizens, provides us the underlying reasons for its controversial decision against the storm.
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