For years, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of tiny, oil-rich Equatorial Guinea has gamely sought to buy a UNESCO prize in his honor. Back in 2009, he was so confident of success that he sent a $3 million check to the organization to endow the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences.
But last October, UNESCO for the second time delayed a decision on the prize in the face of protests from human rights and anti-corruption groups. Some countries, including the United States, also oppose naming a prize in honor of Obiang, who seized power in 1979 and was most recently "elected" three years ago with 95.4 percent of the vote.
The source of the $3 million is also at issue. During his three decades-plus as president, Obiang has somehow accumulated a fortune of $600 million, enough to place him at No. 8 on a list of the world's richest rulers. Some cynics suspect he and his family have misappropriated government revenues, which are largely derived from oil pumped by American companies like ExxonMobil and Hess Corp.
Last fall, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) wrote UNESCO to ask that the organization reject the prize. The $3 million contribution to endow it was likely "the product of corruption or theft from the public treasury," he said.
An internal UNESCO working group is seeking to come up with a solution to the problem. To win approval, Obiang agreed to take his name off the prize and endow it in the name of Equatorial Guinea.
But as of now, it looks like even this desperate step won't be enough. While Obiang's regime is still desperately lobbying for the prize, sources say that the working group is leaning toward definitively rescinding it. As a face-saving gesture for Obiang, it would create a new UNESCO scientific award -- not named for either the dictator or his country -- that would accept contributions from any government, not just from Equatorial Guinea.
Continued concerns about the source of Obiang's $3 million contribution are one of the key issues blocking approval. Equatorial Guinea originally claimed that the endowment money would come from the Obiang Nguema Mbasogo Foundation for the Preservation of Life, an entity that was, until then, entirely unknown. Nor was it clear whether the cash was coming from Obiang's government or his personal pockets -- a distinction that, based on his great wealth, the president does not generally recognize.
In fact, Foreign Policy has learned that the 2009 check didn't come from the president's mysterious foundation. Instead, it was drawn from a state account controlled by the president and sent from a bank in Equatorial Guinea to the First International Merchant Bank of Malta, which then transferred it to UNESCO via a cashier's check. (First International used Deutsche Bank Trust Company, at 280 Park Avenue in New York, as a correspondent bank on the transaction.)
It was a strangely circuitous route for what should have been a straightforward bank transfer and was an embarrassing reminder to UNESCO of the Obiang regime's shady record of dodgy financial dealings. That the Obiang government misled UNESCO about the funding has not sat well with the working group and is helping push delegates toward rescinding the president's long-sought prize. (A final decision is expected next month.)
Concerns about money laundering and corruption are also at the heart of the Obiang clan's problems in the United States.