Monday, July 5, 2010

President Obiang of Equatorial Guiniea to Rebrand himself

A few days ago, the president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogomet briefly with Anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town, South Africa. They discussed various issues concerning Africa and perhaps, touched on religion.  He went in to the meeting a caterpillar, and half-an-hour later, emerged a butterfly, outlining to the world a 10 year plan for Guinea-Conakry that would lift that country out of poverty, propagating it to new democratic heights. Guinea-Conakry, as it is sometimes know to distinguish it self from Guinea-Bissau, is the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa. It is also the host of the 2011 African Union meeting which will bring the leaders of Africa to its back yard. So whats in Obiang's back yard?

According to Slate author, Peter Maass, Obiang's back yard includes a three decade rule, corruption, repression, and oil money that did not trickle down to the masses. Their have also been rumours of spending-The situation in Guinea-Conakry has contributed to a mass exodus of Guineans migrating to Spain over the past few years. Arguably, Maas claims that Obiang is the worst dictator in Africa's history, surpassing that of the notorious Robert Mugabe. Yet, we rarely here about this man nor about oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. Perhaps, its because Equatorial Guinea lacks the drama of the land dispute issue in Zimbabwe that sent millions of white Africans to flee Zimbabwe, paving the way for land redistribution that  captivates western audiences who are still recovering from the discovery of white Africans. Media hardly reports about the on-goings of this small central African nation. Well, now this President who has gone virtually undetected by Western Media wants to put his country on the map, spread his wings and fly. He wants to distance himself from his current image as a corrupt, oppressive leader and become a progressive peoples president.

Obiang is so committed to rebranding himself and his country that, according to New York Times by Celia Dugger in African Leader Hires Adviser and Seeks an Image Change, he has hired an American lobbyist, Lanny J Davis, to help him with his image. He has entered in to a one year, $1 Million  contract with Davis, who has an extensive network in D.C and has worked with high profile clients like Bill Clinton. So it was in Cape Town last week, in front of heads of states,  including Bill Clinton himself, that Obiang announced his New Deal for Equatorial Guinea. This new path includes transparency and a goal to be  'just like the U.S'.

Yet this move has been met with much criticism. Cynics argue firstly, that a leopard can not change his spots. Secondly, that he has not accepted blame for all the human rights abuses and Third, that $1M is a hefty price tag for a nation where people live for less than a dollar a day. Is it possible that in his later years, he wants to be remembered as a hero to his people and not villain? Is it possible that he just wants prosperity for his country? Perhaps, their was a touch of Obama mania (yes we can!) or an instance of divine intervention as he met with the Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Every once in a while, we see caterpillars emerge out of their cocoons as butterflies. I believe that if this president has made change a part of his agenda, we should give him the benefit of the doubt until he proves us wrong. I say to the nay sayers, perhaps quite idealistically, that people have the capacity to change sans, civil war. In recent history, we have seen other leaders in Africa like Banda (Malawi) and Gaddafi (Libya) embrace transformation.

My VisionIn examining Libya, Gaddafi has taken active steps in paving a new road for Libya-literally. He is building super highways and improving the infrastructure for his people, and has set out on a pan-Africanist mission of uniting Africa under one banner. He has attempted to rebrand himself, going as far as admitting fault for the Pan-Am airways hijacking that he previously denied, in order to make amends with the rest of the world. Few in the west though are impressed by Gaddafis new image, and shake his hands at arms length. Although Libya is still under Gaddafis rule, I think it is important for us to accept these achievements. In Malawi's case, under political pressure, self proclaimed 'life President' Banda, stepped down in the 90's, to allow for multi-party elections. It is important to note that he was not re-elected. Banda, perhaps due to his old age, let Malawi change from a one party state to a multi-party state after being the sole president from 1964. So contrary to popular belief, change by African heads of state is possible, regardless of motivation.

If the first step in solving a problem is admitting that there is a problem in the first place, than in Obiangs case, that's part of the problem. Vehemently denying all allegations that have plagued his presidency, makes for a less convincing platform of change. According to the advice from his new image consultant needs to admit to a few wrong-doings, and as his new advisor has told him, win elections by a slim majority instead of a large majority.  Thus far, he is allowing  the Red Cross to come in and investigate human right abuses as a start, but many still doubt his sincerity. Davis has come under criticism too for accepting this role and being a 'stooge' to the president. Both Davis and Obiang are being criticised for taking advantage of the people of the country since his salary is coming from their government. On this matter, I would like to point out that whilst one should never take advantage of ones people, there shouldn't be an expectation of a discounted price because his client is African. Davis is working in his professional capacity. If that's the price that he charged Bill Clinton, than that is what his services are worth. Also, in the long run, if spending that 1 million dollars, is an investment in to Guinea's future in terms of building networks that will lead to favorable development projects, then it is money well spent.

The idea that African leaders should somehow be immune to spending money on items with high tag prices is a delicate one. I understand that in some instances, a leader will spend money on premium products while money could be used by the poor, but I also understand that in a socially stratified capitalist society, their is always going to be those that have, and those that do not. This is not to say I condone the wanton spending habits of some leaders, but to say that, unless Davis offers a 'developing country discount' for his services, for what Obiang wants to achieve, that is the going rate.  I recall an incident where South Africa was hosting several heads of state at a state dinner a few years ago. On the menu where lobsters, shrimp etc.. The media began to report on the lavish nature of the event due to the menu choice in light of the poverty in Africa. What they failed to do was to adjust for South African standard of living since South Africa enjoys ample access to water, the cost of a lavish dinner for head of state in S.A would nowhere be the same as it would overseas. Yes, it is more expensive than an ordinary dinner but since South Africa was hosting foreign dignitaries and heads of state, they had to make a menu befitting of the guests. Let us keep this in perspective by highlighting that Washington DC is also home to one of the highest population of homeless people in Washington D.C. yet, when the President holds his state dinner, we do not hear, in the same news story that, 'Washington DC is also home to thousands of starving Americans', yet we somehow think it is acceptable for them to mention a state dinner in South Africa and comment on the poor in that country.

No one can predict if this latest move by Obiang will be a move that will benefit the country in the long run or if K street can help him rebrand his image. In addition to Davis, Obiang has hired PR firm, Qorvis Communications and a security firm to help guard areas of national aquatic resources. We should help the people of that country by creating a less hostile environment for presidents in Africa seeking change and giving them room to come out of their cocoon's and let the change manifest. Rome was not built in a day, and we can not expect Obiang to change over night. Understandably,  with his past record, he also has personal interests that he has an invested interest in safeguarding. Obiang cannot change his past record, and the world should not forget it either but, if Obiang is committed to change and is taking steps towards this, than we should be enablers of Equatorial Guinea's change.

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