If You Cannot Help Us, Don't Betray Us

If You Cannot Help Us, Don't Betray Us

Enrique N. Okenve Martinez August 14, 2012
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An appeal to the Sullivan Foundation by an Equatoguinean professor who recounts the daily struggles faced by citizens in his country. 

To Leon H. Sullivan Members, Friends and Guests:
If You Cannot Help Us, At Least Do Not Betray Us

Less than a week ago I had no idea who Leon H. Sullivan was or what the foundation named after him stood for. Since then and after learning about their plan to host its biennial summit in Equatorial Guinea, I’ve become greatly acquainted with this foundation and its principles. I don’t intend to smear your foundation in any way. I sincerely respect the work of the late Leon H. Sullivan and the foundation that carries his name. It is for this reason that I invite Ms Hope Sullivan Masters and the friends of the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation to reflect upon your decision to host “The People’s Summit” in Equatorial Guinea.

A month ago I returned from Equatorial Guinea after four years since my last visit. This was no joyful trip, alas. For once the joy of seeing my relatives didn’t disguise the sorrows and hardships of living in Equatorial Guinea. The unsanitary conditions of living without running water; the long nights and hot days dictated by the long and unpredictable power outages; the oppressive atmosphere of not being able to speak freely without first looking over your shoulder and then whispering to your confidant; the blatant corruption that permeates absolutely everything and has ended up tainting everybody who lives and makes business in this country; and, then, to add insult to injury, the absurd parade of power and wealth by the country’s strongmen; this time it all proved more than I could stomach.

None of this is new so I could not help but wondering what was different this time. Perhaps I made the mistake of travelling with expectations; a gleam of hope. Four years is a long time, enough to lose the capacity to gauge the ins and outs of a country. Recently there have been so many news reports about Equatorial Guinea’s economic growth and its strides to reach the so-called 2020 Horizon development goals that, somehow, made me question my original scepticism about the willingness and ability of the current regime to bring about real change to people’s lives. Maybe I had been wrong all along; perhaps things were really changing in Equatorial Guinea after all. Yet it only took me one day to realize that it was just a lie; a big expensive lie. Spectacular highways to nowhere, a myriad of brand new apartment blocks where no one lives, new paved roads that cover up the absence of public water and sewerage systems, and, of course, the perennial power outages that remind us that the more things change the more they stay the same in this energy-rich nation. If anything, the recent developments have converted Equatorial Guinea into a papier-mâché country in which, more than ever, nothing is what it seems. I was taken aback; I was disappointed. There’s no other way to describe it.

I do not feel angry at the international community for turning a blind eye at my country’s lack of freedom. I do not hold multinational oil companies accountable for exploiting my country’s natural resources at a spectacular profit margin. I understand we have done very little to attract the attention of the international community and gain its support to put an end to the dictatorial regime that has ruled the country for the past 33 years. I also understand that greed is the driving force of many business corporations and that it is our government’s responsibility to ensure that people are the main beneficiaries of the country’s resources. Today it is not colonial masters who deny our freedoms and loot our wealth. It is our government, the children of our soil, who are primarily responsible for our sorrows. It is them, I’m angry at.

And yet, I cannot help but feeling profound disappointment when I found out that an organisation such as the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation has chosen Equatorial Guinea to host their biennial summit. Whereas I understand inaction, I cannot accept compliance. By hosting such an event in Equatorial Guinea, this organisation is not only supporting the current political, economic and social situation in our country, but also endorsing a dictatorial regime desperate for international recognition. I will not waste my time and energy replying each of the statements that Ms. Hope Sullivan Masters made in defending her decision to host their summit in Equatorial Guinea. To those who argue about the benevolence of President Obiang Nguema and the progress the country’s has made in the past few years, I would challenge them to live as an ordinary Equatoguinean for one week. Then, if they make it to the end of the week, I would invite them to try to imagine what it’s like to live like that week after week, month after month, year after year.

To Ms. Sullivan Masters, I humbly ask her to stop for a second and think well about her father. Do you really want to taint your father’s memory by associating the foundation that carries his name and legacy with the regime led by President Obiang Nguema? To the members, friends and guests of the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation, I tell them: if you cannot help us, at least do not betray us. When all is said and done, Equatorial Guinea will be just a fickle memory in your mind. We, however, will not forget those who contributed to either boost or weaken the dictatorship that has dominated our country and our lives, for more than three decades.

Enrique N. Okenve Martínez, PhD
Lecturer in African History
University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica

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