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