African leaders have come under fire after choosing Equatorial Guinea’s coup plotter and dictator of 31 years as their ceremonial leader for this year.
Critics said the appointment of President Teodoro Obiang as chairman could undermine the African Union’s attempt to confront other leaders who cling to power.
Human rights groups accuse Mr Obiang of violating the very rights that the AU is sworn to uphold. They say he has made himself, his family and some cronies fabulously wealthy while the majority of people in the oil-rich Central African nation struggle in deep poverty.
Mr Obiang claimed to have won 95% of the vote after Equatorial Guinea’s elections in 2009, making him an unlikely critic of Ivory Coast’s incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to cede power two months after the international community said he lost the vote.
“Neither the African Union nor Africans deserve a leader whose regime is notorious for abuses, corruption and a total disregard for the welfare of its people,” said Alioune Tine, president of the Senegal-based African Assembly for the Defence of Human Rights.
Traditionally, the chairmanship is given to the leader of the country hosting the next summit, but an exception was made in 2005 when it was the turn of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and African leaders bowed to outside pressures in the uproar over killings in Darfur. They passed over Mr al-Bashir and instead kept Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo for a second year.
Some question whether leaders at the two-day summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, are seeing the writing blazed on the wall by Tunisian protesters whose popular revolt ousted 23-year dictator Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali. His was a notable absence from the summit, as was that of embattled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Sudan’s president attended even though students in his nation began protests on Monday, inspired by the success of Tunisia’s uprising.
Such protests are unlikely in Equatorial Guinea, where human rights groups say any sign of dissent is met with arrests and incarceration in a prison notorious for torture and starvation. Last year, four alleged coup plotters were executed just an hour after they were condemned.
Since oil was discovered in Equatorial Guinea around 20 years ago, the country’s per capita income has grown larger than that of some European countries, making it the richest nation in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet life for the average citizen has become harsher – according to United Nations figures the number of infants dying has increased while only 30% of children complete primary school. Only a third of the population has running water and electricity and 60% live on less than 63p a day.
New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned Mr Obiang’s appointment and added, “Even if the AU elects Obiang as its chair, members should not allow him to stall the AU’s efforts and progress in tackling African human rights crises,” notably in Ivory Coast.