African leaders scorned the international campaign against Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi from the luxury of an Equatorial Guinea resort built by a president who imprisoned critics in the run-up to their bi-annual summit.
Equatorial Guinea’s leader, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, oversaw today’s African Union summit at a purpose-built 580 million-euro ($841 million) resort near the capital of his oil-rich nation, where the World Bank says three-quarters of the population earns less than $2 a day.
Obiang, who came to power after overthrowing his uncle in 1979, now presides over an organization that is taking the moral high ground as it looks for a peaceful end to Qaddafi’s rule. Leaders demand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization halt its bombing campaign in Libya, while AU Commission head Jean Ping yesterday accused the International Criminal Court of pouring “oil on the fire” by issuing an arrest warrant for Qaddafi.
“The interventions for human rights are nowadays causing a massive scourge to mankind,” Obiang said during the opening ceremony. Countries and organizations outside Africa “should not intervene in the solutions of Africa’s problems without a consensus from Africa.”
Political activists, students and migrants were detained ahead of the summit as the government pledged to ensure “perfect security,” Human Rights Watch said in a June 22 statement, citing local monitors and opposition groups.
‘Bit of Betrayal’
“You see a lack of consistency and a bit of betrayal in what the AU espouses toward governance,” said Festus Aboagye, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. “We see the AU paying lip service” to human rights.
As president of sub-Saharan Africa’s fourth-biggest oil producer, Obiang has overseen an oil boom that brought gross domestic product per capita to $34,680, on par with the U.K., according to the United Nations Development Programme. Yet, most of the 660,000 population remain mired in poverty.
Obiang lavished millions of dollars on a new conference center and resort for today’s summit. Each head of state is housed in their own Tuscan-style villa overlooking a seaside complex built for the meeting and reached by a six-lane highway that bypasses Malabo, a town of 150,000 people. The local population is barred from the site, called Sipopo village.
“We deplore the human rights abuses,” Henry Bellingham, the U.K.’s Minister for Africa and the United Nations, said in a June 28 interview in Malabo. “We made it absolutely crystal clear that in order for Equatorial Guinea to take its place in the world community, that they’ve got to have proper governance, they’ve got to treat the opposition fairly.”
That didn’t stop the African Union from electing Obiang as its leader in January, replacing President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi. Obiang didn’t respond to an interview request. Mutharika was preceded by Qaddafi, who helped win influence in the continent by setting up a $5 billion Libya Africa Investment Portfolio in 2006.
“When the population doesn’t have water and electricity, this kind of extravaganza is political exhibitionism,” Fabian Nsue Nguema, a human rights lawyer, said in an interview in his Malabo apartment, where the lack of running water forces him to line up buckets to clean himself. “To us, he looks like just another Qaddafi.”
African presidents will later discuss “Accelerating Youth Empowerment for Sustainable Development,” the summit’s official theme, under a five-tier crystal chandelier in an air-conditioned hall that allows the guests to call waiters on personal touch-screens.
AU Commission head Ping said the youth-led uprisings in North Africa, such as Libya’s, were fueled by the lack of opportunities for young people. “It is imperative that the discussions on the theme result in concrete measures to take better care of the needs of African youths,” Ping said.
“The outward image is about youth and development, but look at the waste and excess around this summit,” according to Nsue, who said he spent five months in jail in 2002 for criticizing a wage increase for state functionaries.
Only 10 countries ranked below Equatorial Guinea on Transparency International’s 2010 list of global corruption perceptions.
Obiang, who survived coup attempts in 2004 and 2009, won 95 percent of the vote in a November 2009 election that human rights groups say was neither free nor fair.
“Obiang is very keen to get more international kudos,” Patrick Raleigh, an analyst for the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, said in an interview. “His reputation is mud, but he’s got quite a lot of respect for staying in power for so long.”