The Obiang-UNESCO affair flared up again. But this time it has gotten a facelift — and an approval. It is no longer called the “Obiang Chair” but the “UNESCO -Equatorial Guinea International Pprize 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 for the “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 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 US $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 a little money can buy
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 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.