You might have missed it, but this week was a good one for African scientists – a couple of whom were awarded a prestigious new Unesco prize, credited with improving the quality of human life. Unfortunately, coverage was dominated by the involvement of Equatorial Guinea, a tiny dictatorship with serious human rights problems. SIMON ALLISON examines the controversy.
The three most overlooked names in the news this week have been Dr Maged Al-Sherbiny, Dr Rossana Arroyo, and Dr Felix Dapare Dakora; all three worthy winners of a prestigious new prize rewarding their scientific innovation which has led to improvements in the quality of human life. These people make our life better, and we should probably know a little more about them.
Dr Al-Sherbiny, an Egyptian, was rewarded for his work on vaccine development and diagnostics, focusing on Hepatitis C and schistosomiasis (more commonly known as bilharzia). Both are significant public health threats in Africa, and the good doctor’s work has helped to diminish that threat. Dr Arroyo, from Mexico, focuses her attention on two parasitic diseases – amoebiasis and trichomonosis – that afflict human populations worldwide, and her research will help to control the spread of these diseases.
As South Africans, we definitely should know more about the final recipient of the prize: Dr Dakora, a professor at the Tshwane University of Technology, where he sits comfortably in the South African Research Chair in Agrochemurgy and Plant Symbioses. Don’t be put off by the big words. At its most basic level, what Dr Dakora does is to study ways in which we can use our soil better to produce more, and better quality, food. His specialty is the “molecular conversation” between soil and legumes (beans, lentils, etc.). By making that conversation easier, and teaching farmers how to do it, he is able to improve the quality of the crop, helping to alleviate food scarcity.
But good news stories don’t sell newspapers, or increase page-views. Despite their laudable accomplishments, and despite the fact that this is the first time a major scientific prize has been awarded to African scientists (according to Dr Al-Sherbiny), coverage of the new prize has centred on a rather less salubrious story.
In addition to the prestige accrued, each winner is given $100,000 to continue their work. As always, the money seems to be where the problem comes in. The Unesco-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences was made possible thanks to a generous $3 million donation from, as the name suggests, the tiny African dictatorship of Equatorial Guinea.
Even this was a compromise. Initially, the money was meant to come from the private foundation of Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang, admired in some circles for his record as Africa’s longest-serving dictator (primarily the circle of other African dictators), vilified in others for his well-documented corruption and human rights abuses.
Human rights activists are particularly incensed that Equatorial Guinea was allowed to sponsor the prize, seeming to argue that the regime would be given a sheen of international legitimacy thanks to its association with an obscure science award.
They were spluttering with indignation as the winners received their awards on Tuesday at a ceremony at the Unesco headquarters in Paris.
“It is shameful and utterly irresponsible for Unesco to award this prize, given the litany of serious legal and ethical problems surrounding it,” said Tutu Alicante, director of the human rights group EG Justice. “Beyond letting itself be used to polish the sullied image of Obiang, Unesco also risks ruining its own credibility,” he added.
His words were quoted in a press release issued on behalf of seven campaigning organisations, including Corruption Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, Global Witness and Bono’s the ONE Campaign, and it is their criticism – rather than the award of the prize and the work of the prize-winners – which has dominated media coverage.
It’s easy to see where the rights groups are coming from. Impoverished Equatorial Guinea is run as Obiang’s personal fiefdom. Opposition and free press are violently suppressed. Prisoners are tortured, and the justice system in in tatters. Meanwhile, those in power live the high life – especially Obiang and his family, who are accused in two countries (the USA and France) of corruption on a massive scale, using their country’s oil wealth to fund a life of decadence and ostentation: fleets of supercars, multi-million dollar art collections and lavish apartments in exclusive locations.
But despite their indignation, one suspects that rights groups are actually quite pleased with Unesco’s decision to continue their partnership with Equatorial Guinea. Because far from legitimising his regime – which has received plenty of other international legitimisation, from United Nations membership to Obiang’s chairing of the African Union in 2011 – the prize has given campaigning organisations a golden opportunity to do what they do best: campaign. Let’s face it, without the criticism, very few people outside the scientific community would have known about the prize. With the criticism, the prize gets plenty of publicity – but all of it negative. I don’t think there’s a single article out there (with the exception of the one on Unesco’s website) that references the prize without referencing Equatorial Guinea’s horrible governance record.
The biggest losers in all of this are the actual recipients of the prize; what should be a crowning moment in their careers is sullied by the controversy, their achievements overlooked in media coverage in favour of a litany of Obiang’s many sins.
The other big loser is Africa’s reputation, which should have been boosted by the recognition of two African scientists working in African universities to solve African problems; a symbol of the huge progress the continent has made intellectually in recent years. Instead, it took another knock as international media was filled yet again with the same old themes of brutality and corruption. Ultimately, one has to ask whether the points scored against Equatorial Guinea’s dictator were worth confirming all those old stereotypes about the continent? DM
Equatorial Guinea: Unesco’s Shameful Award from Human Rights Watch
Photo: Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo attends the opening ceremony of the African Nations Cup soccer tournament in Estadio de Bata "Bata Stadium" in Bata January 21, 2012. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh