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How Dictators Triumph: With a Little Help From Their Friends

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By Thor Halvorssen and Tutu Alicante

Francisco Macias Nguema may not be as notorious as Kim Jong-Il or Joseph Stalin, but the people of Equatorial Guinea know him to be just as devastating. The dictator terrorized the country for 11 years, looting and pillaging with wanton bloodlust. Nobody knows the exact body count, but he killed or expelled more than one third of the country's population. Teodoro Obiang Nguema was Macias's nephew and trusted henchman, running the regime's notorious "Black Beach" prison-torture complex and leading the National Guard. Their joint handiwork was such that the country became known as the "Auschwitz of Africa." Proportionally, the two killed more people than the Nazis did in Europe. In 1979, Obiang overthrew his uncle and convinced him to accept guilt for all of their crimes in exchange for sparing his life. Once Macias pled guilty and pulled the curtain on the abuses they had jointly committed, Obiang ordered him shot by firing squad, had himself declared a god by state radio, and has ruled ever since.

After 33 years and a litany of human rights violations, Obiang has grown more conscious of his international reputation. The "supreme leader" spends millions and millions of dollars, from Washington to the UN, hiring lobbyists and making donations to clean up his image. Along the way the tyrant's bling has caught the eye of some venal PR folks. Chief among them is Qorvis Communications, a D.C.-based firm whose work for Obiang ranges from influencing news coverage at the New York Times and the Associated Press to circulating press releases with titles like "President Obiang Improves Equatorial Guinea's Political System," where the president is featured making "calls for legal reform" and the government is noted as making an effort to "systematically and progressively pursue greater democracy and pluralism."

But behind the purchased praise, who is Obiang? Most haven't heard of Equatorial Guinea. It is a tiny, oil-rich country in central Africa with a population of approximately 700,000. The totalitarian reality -- stolen elections, strict censorship, routine torture, murdered dissidents -- is overshadowed by vast petro-wealth. A former U.S. ambassador there captured it perfectly: "There is not really a government. There is an ongoing family criminal conspiracy. That's what runs the country."

Beyond Qorvis, the Obiangs have recently spread their largesse to the non-profit field. Next week they are paying for a major summit to whitewash their reputation. The Sullivan Summit claims to be focused on "human rights," yet there will be no discussion whatsoever of Obiang's obscene level of corruption or the crimes against humanity he has perpetrated over the last 44 years. From a public relations perspective, the summit is a PR coup for the government: How better to make a human rights violator seem friendly than to have a conference about human rights?

The summit is expected to include 600 American guests, 1500 African guests, and several hundred Latin-American guests to serve as the entertainment equivalent of clapping seals. The rent-a-crowd summit represents the largest PR effort the Obiangs have waged thus far. And it is likely to be a prelude for a further charm offensive in the future. In turn, the organizers -- the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation, led by Hope Sullivan Masters -- have subcontracted Aly Z. Ramji from Gamut International to do address the crisis communications aspect of the Summit, complete with offering free trips to Malabo and unfettered access if writers agree to write a "good story" because they "didn't want any bad press." Gamut and Qorvis have an easy job to do given the level of general ignorance about Equatorial Guinea and the fact that a nonprofit with a name as respectable as the great Leon H. Sullivan is laundering Obiang's reputation.

Through these three D.C.-based groups, the Obiang family of kleptocrats -- who have devoted three decades to siphoning off Equatorial Guinea's wealth into their pockets and creating a modern-day hereditary presidency -- wish to gain entry into the elite of America's civil rights lobby. The Sullivan board includes Bill Clinton as a founding director and current honorary co-chair. In addition, former Atlanta Mayor and UN Ambassador Andrew Young led the foundation until early March. As a result of the public exposure from several human rights organizations, Young recently disavowed the Foundation's decision to hold the summit in Equatorial Guinea -- prompting us to ask more questions. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton's name has been scrubbed from the website. Keynote speakers and VIP guests have canceled.

No amount of covering up can hide the fact that the Sullivan Foundation's leadership has put the organization's reputation and staff at Obiang's disposal. And it would be disingenuous to believe they are unaware of the cruel reality of life in the tyrant's kingdom.

Several universities have sold Obiang honorary degrees. Most of them are academically insignificant institutions with no standing in their own communities. However, for a narcissistic psychopath, recognition and respect can mean the difference between euphoria and depression. Most of the academic retailers will also attend. Some of them proudly boast of their participation on their websites.

In addition, several star athletes are expected to attend the summit and have been offered substantial attendance fees to show up. The president's son, Teodorin, now vice-president of Equatorial Guinea, has made it clear that he wishes to play basketball with NBA greats. The Sullivan Foundation has lined up retired and active NBA stars and are putting on the Inaugural Leon H. Sullivan Exhibition Basketball game.

Teodorin is currently wanted in France for money laundering. He celebrated his birthday in Equatorial Guinea on June 25, and his lavish party included an undisclosed payment to Miami-based rapper Fat Joe to perform. In addition, Argentine-Spanish singer Chenoa was also paid to sing the tyrant-in-training "Happy Birthday." The affair has an eerie resemblance to the recent scandal involving Hilary Swank's disastrous visit to the dictator of Chechnya to celebrate his birthday along with Seal, Jean Claude Van Damme, and Vanessa Mae.

The list of American VIPs provided all-inclusive invitations to the Sullivan Summit were leaked and then published by World Policy Journal. The list contains a who's who of African-American culture and influence.

How many millions has the Obiang clan funneled to the Sullivan Foundation, associated entities, and family businesses in return for this level of attention and displays of submission? Records reveal that Qorvis is paid a fee of $60,000 per month to manipulate the truth and somehow claim that Africa's longest-serving dictator is actually making "democratic reforms." However, unlike Qorvis, the Sullivan Foundation doesn't have to reveal the price for which they have sold out to the Obiang clan.

Previously both EG Justice and the Human Rights Foundation, human rights groups focused on civil liberties and rights, have written to the Sullivan Foundation requesting information and pleading with them to cancel their Summit. These letters have been ignored.

But perhaps our outrage is misguided and purist. What can be expected from policy Lilliputians and rent-seekers in the Beltway when the United States government, with all of its talk on human rights in Africa, has displayed gutless leadership on the matter. Well-respected international leaders like Condoleeza Rice, Barack Obama, Ban Ki-moon, Kofi Annan, Lula da Silva, and Nicolas Sarkozy bend over backward every time they meet President Obiang. His wealth and power, as leader of the "Kuwait of Africa," is such that they won't miss an opportunity to butter him up and smile for the camera.

In the meantime, his people live with no rights and do not share in the country's oil wealth. If you want to know who is responsible don't look so much at Obiang... look at as his friends. Fascism doesn't triumph without help.

Thor Halvorssen is president of the Human Rights Foundation and Tutu Alicante is president of EG Justice.