The Reverend Leon H. Sullivan (left) is remembered as one of the most respected leaders of the American civil rights movement. A staunch internationalist, he gave his name to the Sullivan Principles that promoted a socially responsible approach by corporations doing business with apartheid South Africa. But his legacy is being besmirched by association with one of the world’s most repressive regimes, according to Arch Puddington and Morgan Huston.*
Next week, the ideals of Reverend Sullivan will be invoked as a legitimizing fig leaf for what amounts to a thoroughly ignoble event. The Leon H. Sullivan Foundation, an organization committed to “empowering underprivileged people worldwide by promoting the principles of self-help and social responsibility,” and to advocating “for the poor and disadvantaged,” will hold its prestigious ninth biennial summit in Equatorial Guinea, a country ruled by Africa’s longest-serving and arguably most rapacious despot.
As sub-Saharan Africa’s third largest producer of oil, Equatorial Guinea boasts a per capita gross domestic product roughly equivalent to that of Poland or Argentina. Yet two-thirds of its citizens survive on less than a dollar a day. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (right) has amassed a personal fortune estimated at $600 million even as one in three Equatorial Guineans dies before the age of 40. There is no freedom of the press, and dissent is swiftly quashed using the same cruel methods employed by dictators down through the ages. The country has never experienced real elections, and it has long earned the worst possible ratings for political rights and civil liberties in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report.
The Sullivan Foundation has vigorously defended its decision in the face of mounting criticism. Among other arguments, it has pointed to Obiang’s plans to build low-income housing and eventually implement democratic reforms as evidence of progress. The foundation cannot resist superlatives in extolling Obiang’s reign of terror, insisting that Equatorial Guinea has under the current leader “enjoyed the most productive period of peace, stability, and development in its history.”
The choice of venue is especially deplorable in the wake of UNESCO’s approval of an award sponsored by Obiang and the initiation of multiple investigations into his and his family’s financial dealings in the United States, France, and Spain. Eager to deflect attention from allegations of graft and high living, Obiang has hired several international public relations and lobbying firms, all of which are looking for ways to improve his image. The UNESCO award and next week’s summit suggest that the money may have been well spent.
The reasons for the Sullivan Foundation’s involvement with Obiang are less than clear. Some reports suggest that it needs money, and it has acknowledged receiving donations from host countries in the past. Money talks, but surely the foundation, which until now enjoyed a benign reputation, could have found a more appropriate host. It has placed itself in the position of participating in a sordid PR offensive designed to burnish the image of a tyrant. In the process, it has tarnished the legacy of its distinguished founder, a man who devoted a lifetime to advancing freedom and economic opportunity, the very opposites of the values that have animated Obiang’s 33-year rule.
* Arch Puddington is vice president for research at Freedom House. Morgan Huston is a member of the Freedom House research staff.