Initial Impressions on the Sullivan Foundation Summit in Equatorial Guinea

In a statement released August 6, Mrs. Hope Sullivan-Masters sought to rebut the criticisms of her choice to host the Sullivan Foundation’s 9th Summit in Equatorial Guinea. Therein, she demonstrates a surface understanding of African history, and geopolitics. She then goes on to defend Obiang as a reformer who has improved roads and brought technology to his nation.

The truth is that President Obiang has modernized his country and has implemented major political reforms.  As I look around Equatorial Guinea, it appears the entire country is a worksite in which capital and technology from around the world participate without discrimination – and which provides tens of thousands of jobs for the people of Equatorial Guinea in the process.  The US State Department states as follows about the most recent elections in EG:  International elections observers reported that the elections were conducted in a free and fair manner.

President Obiang has elected voluntarily, to comply with the rules and obligations of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).

The last few points are absolutely incorrect. The EITI expelled Equatorial Guinea in 2010, and voter turnout was suspiciously high (this is in the context of the utter lack of a viable opposition party, where of 100 representatives, only one is from the opposition party.) Note, however, that this does not at all address the criticisms of Equatorial Guinea’s dismal human rights record under Obiang. It does not touch on the wrongful imprisonment and torture of Equatoguineans, nor does it address the repression of free speech and free press within the nation. And a glance at the Summit Program shows little transparency, as all events where Pres. Obiang is to be present notably list “undisclosed location” and “no press allowed.”

Also, as a Delegate, it was striking that my movements were regulated so heavily. I was stopped, frisked and searched by Equatoguinean state, city and national security forces more times than I can count. I was also asked to pay bribes to police officers to get past road blocks. What was especially telling was seeing Equatoguinean citizens’ fear in the presence of the paramilitary forces with imported American weapons.

WHO SPEAKS FOR THE DIASPORA?

Note the logo

The part that made me stop reading the statement was when Mrs. Sullivan-Masters called the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation “…the emerging face of the African Diaspora.” I had to stop and digest this. Who speaks for the Diaspora, let alone African-Americans who seek to engage with Africa?  It takes a certain kind of arrogance to make this kind of statement. A brief overview of the history of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade shows that most of the Diaspora is in what we now call Latin America and the Caribbeans. If anyone can represent the Diaspora as a majority, it is Afro-Latinos and West Indians. In fact, this map of all trafficking from the continent shows that the overwhelming majority (~95%) of trafficked and enslaved Africans went to Latin America and the Caribbean, and a relative few went to North America. This does not even take into account African immigrant communities all over the world.

Yet, strangely enough, American Exceptionalism converges with narratives on African-American histories to create this centering of Black Americans within Diasporic conversations. Hyphenated Americans at home are first and foremost Americans abroad. This diverges from the expatriate generations of Black American artists, writers and thinkers that characterized the Harlem Renaissance. One dominant understanding of Blackness is constructed and understood within distinctly American contexts of oppression and struggle. The familiar understandings of the Peculiar Institution, Jubilee, Reconstruction, the emergence and adaptation of Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement and the Crack Era punctuate the narrative. The more cosmopolitan, Pan-African or Black nationalistic narratives might incorporate a global story of American Blackness that originates in and is disseminated to “the Motherland.”

I must note here that these simplistic, linear understandings exist only because of narrative filters. The outliers are filtered out for a more cohesive, compelling story. These outliers include Haitian, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Afro-Peruvian, etc immigrant communities in the United States that endured generations of discrimination and compulsory assimilation in the proverbial “melting pot.”

How does this tie into Mrs. Sullivan-Masters’ statement? The Leon H. Sullivan Foundation is recognized as an organization founded and run by African-Americans. There are a notable few Africans and non-American Diasporans in their administrative rolls and organizational board (including Ghana’s former President, John Kufuor and his nephew). By no means is the Foundation representative of the Diaspora. Also, in their speeches, African heads of state, including Swaziland Prime Minister, and the President of Sao Tome and Principe, all used “African-American” interchangeably with “the Diaspora.” Again, who speaks for the Diaspora?

What happens when the Western Self that negates the Other is internalized in Diasporic (in this case, specifically American) identities? You get this- the sheer erasure of African voices and agency in matters regarding Diaspora engagement and human rights.

WHO SPEAKS FOR AFRICAN WOMEN?

Another notable absence was African women’s lack of visibility and voice. African women were spoken of and spoken for. Cursory gestures were made to the “founding mothers of Equatorial Guinea” and to “Mother Africa,” but at the Sullivan Summit, African women were an afterthought to be made use of. The only African woman in government who spoke was the Mayor of Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, and her speech was a series of expressions of gratitude to President Obiang interspersed with bows. The other two African women who spoke were Equatoguinean pageant queens. They were silenced in another way, as there were no translators, and the room was full of people who did not understand Spanish.

The latter two women spoke at the “Women’s Luncheon” which prominently featured African-American women speakers, who spoke broadly about African women. The theme was “I’m Every Woman.” That alone was telling. This was a clear example of when Western feminisms bounded by national borders- even among women of color or African descent- make claims to universalistic transnationalism. One speaker’s assumption was that all women of the African Diaspora and all women on the continent grapple with the pressure to be “superwoman” or “Strong Black Woman,” when they are largely culturally American.

Similarly, I found the emphasis on individualistic self-care detached/compartmentalized from resistance outside of the domestic sphere especially lacking. The assumption that African women- or women in the Global South in general- deal with the same compartmentalization of their “public” and “private” (domestic) spheres is West-centric (note also, that it does not apply to many women in the West- especially women outside of heteronormative household units, women who earn low incomes.) African women have historically been active agents in both the public and private spheres of their lives. Colonial regimes may have tried to enforce a compartmentalization through changes in gender relations by cutting off African women’s access and participation in markets, but they were largely unsuccessful. They were, however, successful at impeding African women’s ability to accumulate capital and gain access to increasingly privatized resources (property, land and water rights).

MY IMPRESSIONS

The Sullivan Summit did not live up to its claim of being a “Gathering of the Diaspora: A Global Dialogue” on community outreach, social development, youth initiatives, women’s rights and human rights. I did learn 3 things: 1) who are the players in the “investment” and “development” of Africa’s resource-rich nations? 2) The true face of Equatorial Guinea’s government 3) how not to do “Diaspora Engagement.” The attendees were comprised of African-Americans, African immigrants/descendants from the United States, contractors, businessmen, and African statesmen (yes, statesMEN). The contractors and businessmen represented Washington DC-based PR firms, multinational oil firms, construction suppliers, and they hailed from China, Austria, Saudi Arabia, the United States and other nations. It was all very strategic political theater- image rehabilitation and deal-making in the name of “Africa Rising.” Meanwhile, the Equatoguinean women, men and children outside of the conference center in Sipopo danced all day for the entertainment of Summit attendees, only to go home to communities that did not match the “modern” image projected by their government.

Between the defensive speeches from Sullivan Foundation President/CEO Hope Sullivan Masters, and Equatoguinean President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasago, and the shoddy planning and organization of the Summit, it was hard to enjoy my time there. On the first day, there was a 4-hour delay between the opening plenary and lunch because the heads of states were in meetings with businessmen. Lunch was not served until 4:30pm. Additionally, very promising panels were canceled due to these delays.

Related Links:

August 6, 2012 Morningside Post: “How an African Dictator Pays for Influence
August 6, 2012 US News: “Politicians Bow Out of Summit Hosted by Africa’s Longest-Serving Dictator
August 8, 2012 Morningside Post: “Hope Sullivan-Masters is Defending the Indefensible
August 8, 2012 Associated Press: “Groups slam foundation’s Summit in E. Guinea
August 15, 2012 Sahara Reporters: “Embattled Sullivan Foundation CEO Meltdown During Radio Interview

 

Update:

January 10, 2013 US News: D.C. Foundation Closes its Doors Following Summit Glorifying African Dictator

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24 Comments

Filed under Africa, African Diaspora, Central Africa, Equatorial Guinea, Feminism, Gender, Globalization, Migration, Politics, The Continent of Africa, Western Africa, Womanism

24 responses to “Initial Impressions on the Sullivan Foundation Summit in Equatorial Guinea

  1. Julio Ndong

    Well, well. Thank you very much for your honest report. I wish you could have had the chance to visit the city and speak to equatorial guineans. We are citizens without freedom. In this country you can launder money or commit crimes but never ever critizice the Government.

    • aconerlycoleman

      Hello, and thank you for reading and commenting.

      I did get to go into Malabo and speak with Equatoguineans. It was amazing how silent people were about the government, but I speak as an American who is accustomed to speaking freely (although this is changing.)

  2. Rachel

    Thanks for this piece.

    Lots of nicely-worded paragraphs, and brilliant use of language… but please, any more details on the actual content of the summit? Did you get to talk with any EquatoGuineans? (Hotel staff, casual workers, other delegates etc.)

    What bribe did you take? Apparently you don’t want to give details, but it’s one of the most interesting things you raise.

    Why did you go to the summit? Why did you have such high expectations given all that transpired beforehand? Was your agenda to go there and report how awful it was?

    • aconerlycoleman

      To clarify, I did not *take* a bribe. Just had to pay a bribe to get past a road block.

      I did not go w/ an agenda. I went to see for myself. And generally, I have high expectations because I am am optimist who believes that we human beings can always do better.

      As I said in my blogpost, this is the first of at least 3 blogposts on the Summit. I broke it up, because most readers cannot sustain interest for longer than 1000 words.

      • Rachel

        Thanks for the clarification, you wrote “I was also bribed.” Thus, I took that literally — a roadblock is a different circumstance, actively paying a bribe to gain access vs. accepting a bribe for some purpose.

        It seems the agenda for the conference was pretty clear before the summit, undoubtedly the lure of a free trip was strong for many delegates – just surprised you had such high expectations.

        Appreciate your sharing. Other delegates had lots of lovely things to say about the summit, interesting contrast.

  3. Nsi Mba

    Bonita redacción, como Guineano me preocupa el silencio de las grandes Organizaciones de derechos Humanos sobre este Sanguinario Dictador llamado Obiang Nguema, y duele y mucho sobretodo cuando intentábamos advertirles que esa IX cumbre de Sullivan no servia mas que para aupar hasta los altares del Olimpo al criminal del Presidente de Guinea, tenías que haber visitado los barrios adyacentes, (Lamper, Ñubil, Siale Bileca..) para que viera que hasta los perros callejeros de cualquier país viven mejor que el 95% de los Ecuatoguineanos, no exagerábamos cuando se les intentó advertir aquello que tu solo pudo intuir y no pudo ver.
    No dudes en denunciar lo que Obiang Intenta ocultar sobornando a todo el mundo.

    • aconerlycoleman

      Hello,

      I did visit neighboring communities, and I did see the quality of living of Equatoguineans for whom “development” has not yielded results. I simply did not write about it for the sake of brevity. Upcoming posts.

  4. Thank you for visiting Equatorial Guinea and for sharing your impressions and thoughts about the summit. I commend you for going and for keeping your analytical radar sharp. Great work.

  5. Sean

    I’m really looking forward to your next pieces where hopefully you get down to the nitty-gritty of daily life in EG, and the barriers you encountered while trying to investigate. Obiang says the stories of poverty and corruption are “outdated from old UN reports” etc. Let’s see if that’s true.

  6. Your comments about the speaker who assumed all women grapple with the pressure to be a “superwoman” was likely me. You are absolutely right. I spoke from a total Western perspective because I was asked to speak about my personal experiences. I was not in a position to speak about the challenges of African women. In hindsight, the luncheon should have have had African women speaking, not Americans.

    • aconerlycoleman

      Hello!

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I meant no disrespect, and I do appreciate you speaking on your personal experiences. I agree wholeheartedly that the luncheon should have prominently featured African women- and women of the African Diaspora.

      Your humility is a breath of fresh air. Much respect.

  7. Papayemi

    I am new to your blog – was this your first trip to the continent? I hope this EG experience does not taint your views about Africa – indeed a beautiful place with a global problem (geopolitical greed) – Obiang and his ilk will remain in authority until the masses rise up and revolt. The genesis of the Arab Spring is rooted in the long suffering of the oppressed Tunisians – they decided not to suffer any longer. Sadly, they did not properly plan their revolution. I pray that the long suffering of the brothers and sisters in EG serve as the catalyst to properly orchestrate the trajectory of this beautiful nation. In my humble opinion, International organizations and the West are complicit in the status quo established by these rogues – the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation joins the band of collaborators. Recently, France, hypocritically seized the material wealth of Obiang’s son in Paris (conversation for another day). I join all the commentators in thanking you for writing and posting this piece.

    • aconerlycoleman

      Hello!

      Fortunately, this was not my first trip to the continent. And you’re right. Greed, corruption, lack of accountability is a global, geopolitical problem. It’s just better-hidden in the West.

      • Papayemi

        Brilliant! Then EG is not the marker for your experiences. This is not to say the continent is not fraught with challenges. “better-hidden in the West”? It all depends on one’s lens of perception – yes? Thanks once again…. Cheers -

  8. Hello,

    It’s nice to finally hear from someone who actually attended the Summit. I’m really excited to read the rest of your post.
    But I wanted to ask you about the controversy. is the summit something we (and I speak as a member of the diaspora) should feel indignant about when it was obvious that the summit was not about human rights, but more of a networking soire?

    One of the commentators on CompareAfrique.com recently wrote about what she termed the “unnecessary indignation: “The time spent feeling indignant about Sullivan-Master’s biennial networking party could have been spent on actual human rights issues: the death of a former Olympic athlete attempting to flee Somalia on a boat, the threats made against the lives of other Somalian athletes for having participated in the Olympics, the defection of Olympic athletes from various African countries, the mining massacre in South Africa and renewed calls from right-wing South Africans for a return to apartheid, the outbreak of Ebola in Uganda, the massacre of refugees in Cote d’Ivoire, the continued chaos in Mali and the flight of Northern Malians to Mauritania, and the fact that slavery still exists in Mauritania. These issues actually merit our outrage, attention and action.”

    I would honestly love to get your opinion on the article since you went to the conference…

    You can read the rest of the article here: http://www.compareafrique.com/?p=258

    • aconerlycoleman

      In my opinion, much indignation is wasted energy and social capital. While the Summit most certainly did not live up to its claims of addressing human rights, I think targeting the Sullivan Foundation is temptingly easy. I’ve been contacted by media outlets that want to slam the Sullivan Foundation, asked for interviews and even offered money to write articles about how “bad” the Summit was. I’m not here for that.

      You’re right when you point out that much of this energy is better expended on “actual human rights issues: the death of a former Olympic athlete attempting to flee Somalia on a boat, the threats made against the lives of other Somalian athletes for having participated in the Olympics, the defection of Olympic athletes from various African countries, the mining massacre in South Africa and renewed calls from right-wing South Africans for a return to apartheid, the outbreak of Ebola in Uganda, the massacre of refugees in Cote d’Ivoire, the continued chaos in Mali and the flight of Northern Malians to Mauritania, and the fact that slavery still exists in Mauritania.” You’re absolutely right.

      As a Diasporan, the question is always “how can I best expend this energy? how can I make it meaningful?” More spilled ink and hurled insults will change nothing.

  9. joe

    it’s a bit funny to go to a summit and then write about it and then say we should be focusing on other things. sigh. looking forward to the additional posts but this strikes me as simply a high-level networking event for the investors and other business people making deals across the continent. it’s a bit difficult to determine how good or bad this is – we never really know the contours of these deals, who wins and who loses as a result of them. china and the u.s. are competing, we’re meant to believe, when in fact nations don’t do business, companies do. and the reality is the shareholders in these companies are living in both countries (and many in europe as well). it’s not nearly as clean and neat as anyone wants to suggest. human rights issues are somewhat outside of this debate. they don’t occur except as hazards to the value of a brand or the stability in a given country (and then if things fall apart, the impact on the deal in question). this summit strikes me as rather crass and primitive. the sullivan foundation people should know they can help their business friends do more business without wading into a big fiasco that ultimately works against achieving that goal. they’re amateurs.

    • aconerlycoleman

      It’s not funny to me. I did not write this to join the myriad indignant voices. My time in Equatorial Guinea was chock full of lessons (I consider myself a student of Africa’s history and politics, and aspire to be a futurist.) I did not simply go for a Summit. I went to see for myself, and I did indeed see/hear/taste/feel Equatorial Guinea for myself- and that was well beyond the government complexes. I learned the most among Equatoguineans in the marketplaces and residential communities.

      Also, if you note my (sizeable) body of work/research, you’ll note that I ask Qs, an look for solutions and alternatives in various areas of development, governance. I set myself apart from critics who offer nothing.

    • I also went and to a great degree, I agree, it was a huge networking soiree but like aconerlycoleman said, it was chock full of lessons. I always try to find the good in a bad situation and if anything, the experience and the relationships borne out of the experience, have made me more aware and interested in African issues and bought a sense of connection to the Motherland that I had not felt in my previous trip to Africa. Yes, the Summit itself was fraught with a myriad of problems but there was a greater purpose in bringing the delegation of Americans to EG.

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