Equatorial Guinea Adviser: The UNESCO Prize Stays

Martin is a contributing news editor and writer based in Amsterdam

PARIS—Yesterday, UNESCO's executive board decided to suspend a controversial prize for the life sciences, funded by and named after President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, a tiny, oil-rich dictatorship in Western Africa. The decision called on talks to continue "until a consensus is reached," but Western observers see it as an elegant diplomatic way of burying the idea for good without offending African sensibilities.

Not so, says Mba Mokuy Agapito, Obiangs's adviser on international organizations, who was in Paris this week to follow UNESCO's deliberations. His comments have been edited for brevity.

Q: What is Equatorial Guinea's reaction to the decision?

A: There are two things. First, the prize was approved 2 years ago; that has not been called into question. The second issue is, should it be implemented right now? About this, the executive board said, "Let's postpone it until a consensus has been reached."

Q: But most people believe that, because a consensus will be impossible to reach, the prize has effectively been canceled.

A: Not at all. We have no doubt that a consensus will be reached. There may be some differences of views, but it isn't the first time that we have controversial issues in UNESCO. It's just a question of finding out how we can work together, what the difficulties are, why some people object, and how can we find a solution. We have to talk under normal circumstances, without any pressure from the press or anybody else.

We will reach a consensus, because you can't have an issue in UNESCO pending forever. And it's very important that this decision was proposed by the executive board's chairperson, [Eleonora Mitrofanova]. By making this proposal, she engages herself. There is no question of canceling the prize, so what does she have left? She will have to find a solution.

Q: Would you be prepared to drop the name Obiang from the prize, if it remained an African science prize?

A: If you change the name, you are changing the [2008] decision of the executive board, because they approved the prize with the name. That's not up to Equatorial Guinea; it's up the board to decide if they want to change their own decision.

Q: Are you disappointed by the debate?

A: I'm not disappointed, but I am concerned, because this is the first prize in UNESCO's history named after an African head of state, and it is to help research in areas that affect Africa, such as HIV, malaria, and other endemic diseases. The jury has already met and has [chosen] winners from Africa, Latin America, and the Arab states—essentially from developing countries. So when we're blocking the whole thing, it's a pity that we may be sending the wrong message.

Q: But isn't it the wrong message to name a prize in the life sciences after a president who has been accused of serious human rights abuses and corruption?

A: Those concerns should have been discussed 2 years ago, when the executive board accepted Equatorial Guinea's proposal for a prize. Are you saying that the member states didn't think about these issues when they took that decision?

As to those who accuse President Obiang of [corruption], even if that were true, don't we think it's better to spend the money on science than on something else? What is wrong with him spending this money on the right cause?

Q: The Equatoguinean government has blamed those who oppose the prize for having a "racist" and "colonial" attitude. Is that how you see it? 

A: If you look at all the facts, it's difficult to arrive at a different conclusion. You have many prizes at UNESCO, including prizes named after people. If there are specific criteria, they should apply to all those prizes. This has not happened. It appears that one country has been singled out. It's very difficult for anyone who is neutral to think that there is no discrimination. It's very difficult to explain. It means that some people are targeting President Obiang for reasons we don't know.

Q: Is it correct that Equatorial Guinea wants to raise its scientific profile and use its oil revenues to become an African science hub?

A: It's not that we want to raise our scientific profile. We have come to the conclusion that science is critical to the development of any country, and particularly our country. We are trying to give science priority. For that we need a lot of help, from UNESCO, the African Union, the scientific institutions, from the developing world. ... We cannot do all of this alone.

We have realized that science is critical, and we have put it on the top of our agenda. Blocking this initiative is not the way to encourage us to go forward.

Q: The African Union has already offered to host the Obiang prize. If the current impasse continues, you could simply say, "Forget it, we'll go to the African Union."

A: If, in the end, the executive board comes to the conclusion that there are problems and they want to give us back the prize, we will decide what we can do. But at the moment, that would be jumping to conclusions. There is no question about the decision that has been taken. It is very clear. The prize stays.