Whitewashing a Dictator

A “human-rights” organization fronts for one of the world's worst regimes.

During the last few days I've been reading and watching various items online about Leon H. Sullivan (1922-2001), a leader of the civil-rights movement and a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr.  As you can see in this short video about him, Sullivan, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H.W. Bush and the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights by Bill Clinton, preached “hard-work and self-help.”  Neither a Marxist nor a Black Power agitator, Sullivan, who spent twenty years on the board of General Motors, sought to improve the conditions of underprivileged black people both in the United States and in Africa through a range of ambitious and apparently well-run programs involving education, investment, medical care, and business development.  To all indications, he was a man of honor, principle, and serious dedication.  And until recently, I'm embarrassed to say, I didn't know the first thing about him.  (If I ever did, I'd long since forgotten it.)  Meanwhile – such, alas, is the way these things have turned out – we all know the names, faces, and voices of hucksters like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

The occasion for my belated self-education in the life and career of Leon H. Sullivan was an unpleasant one.  As it turns out, there exists something called the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation.  Its offices are in Washington, D.C.; its president is Sullivan's daughter, Hope Sullivan Masters; and the chairman of its board is Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under Jimmy Carter.  Over the years, the foundation has held a series of “Sullivan Summits” in various African countries on the subject of human rights; the ninth summit is scheduled to take place later this month in the west African country of Equatorial Guinea under the sponsorship, and with the financial backing, of that country's president, Teodoro Obiang.

On August 1, Thor Halvorssen and George Ayittey of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation sent a letter to Masters and Young expressing concern about these plans, noting that Obiang is a “dictator who heads one of the world’s most repressive regimes and is accused of carrying out crimes against humanity.”  In power since 1979, Obiang has been re-elected over and over again by ridiculous margins in sham elections, and during his tenure (the longest of any non-royal on earth) has established a Stalin-style cult of personality, with the state-owned media describing him as a god.

As if that weren't enough, Obiang would also appear to be the very personification of kleptocratic corruption.  Although Equatorial Guinea, thanks to its oil wealth, has a per capita income of $36,515, placing it on a level with Western Europe, most of its people are among the continent's most destitute, earning an average of less than two dollars a day and enduring the most primitive imaginable excuse for an infrastructure.  “Here is a country where people should have the per capita wealth of Spain or Italy, but instead they live in poverty worse than in Afghanistan or Chad,” a Human Rights Watch official told the New York Times in 2009. “This is a testament to the government’s corruption, mismanagement and callousness toward its own people.”  Last October an Observer piece headlined “The strange and evil world of Equatorial Guinea” painted a horrific portrait of engineers and economists living in dilapidated shacks, of schools that are muddy sheds without books, and of children growing up in brutal prisons.

Where does all the money go?  Mostly, it would appear, to Obiang and his family.  The other day Jon Perdue noted in the Washington Times that by 2003, Obiang had reportedly “become the biggest depositor of the infamous Riggs Bank, with $700 million in its U.S. account, 'some of it hauled $1 million at a time into Riggs's [Dupont] Circle branch in shrink-wrapped, 20-pound bundles.'”  Obiang's son, Teodorin, who was his country's Minister of Agriculture and Forestry and is now vice-president and heir presumptive to the dictatorship, has “$10 million party weekends and dozens of high-end cars and homes around the world.”  There's currently a warrant out for him in France, where last year authorities confiscated his personal fleet of luxury cars; meanwhile the U.S. Justice Department is looking to seize his Gulfstream jet and other properties, including his Malibu beach house, which is said to have the most highly assessed property value in that city.

In their letter to Masters and Young, Halvorssen and Ayittey spelled out many of the horrors of Obiang's regime, and added a few telling statistics: the country “scores a zero on the Open Budget Index, and is listed 172 out of 182 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Reporters Without Borders ranks it 161 out of 179 in their Press Freedom Index, and the Committee to Protect Journalists considers it the fifth most censored country in the world.”  And yet, Halvorssen and Ayittey pointed out, “the Sullivan Foundation has not once made reference to this appalling and well-documented record of corruption and human rights abuse.”  On the contrary, the Sullivan Foundation has mendaciously claimed that Equatorial Guinea under Obiang has enjoyed “political pluralism” and “good governance” and developed a “civil society.”  The foundation boasts of Equatorial Guinea's per capita income – but omits to mention that “none of that wealth is shared beyond the rulers of this police state.”  As if that weren't enough, the Sullivan Foundation honored Obiang last December with a human-rights award.  Noting that all of this was utterly contrary to the legacy of Leon Sullivan, Halvorssen and Ayittey called on Masters and Young to cancel the summit.

Halvorssen and Ayittey's letter attracted widespread attention (as did their article about this travesty that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on August 8).  Around the world, people familiar with Sullivan's legacy expressed shock at the cozy relationship that appears to exist between the Sullivan Foundation and the Obiang dictatorship.  What, many wondered, would Sullivan have made of this spectacle?  The attention had some effect: the summit's keynote speaker canceled, as did others who had apparently planned to attend.  The name of Bill Clinton, who had been identified on the organization's website as an honorary chairman, suddenly and mysteriously disappeared.  And Andrew Young, in a curious response to a letter from the Human Rights Foundation, claimed that he is no longer chairman of the Sullivan Foundation (even though he is identified as such on its website) and added that he has “not attended Sullivan Foundation Board meetings in 2012” and consequently “was not a party to the decision to hold the Summit in Equatorial Guinea” – a decision announced, note well, in 2011.

Yet Masters, far from changing her tune, shot back at her critics on August 6 in a semi-literate blog post in which she avoided all the matters of substance that they had raised and instead played the – um –  postcolonialism card.  How dare these Westerners criticize Obiang, whose people had made him their president and whose fellow African leaders had picked him to lead the African Union?  “For centuries,” she thundered, “Africa has been exploited, denigrated, and treated as the habitat of people of inferior intellect.... It would appear that some would still like to be in the position of controlling the people and the resources of Africa.”  As if she feared that she wasn't making her point obvious enough, she spelled it out in a tweet (later deleted): “Racism is alive and well.”  On August 10, in the face of rising criticism, she posted a You Tube video – also semi-literate – reaffirming her determination to go ahead with the summit.

I may be wrong, but from what I have read and seen about Leon Sullivan, he would have been repulsed by the now-familiar argument that the way tyrants treat their subjects in a non-Western country is no business of Westerners – that the history of Western colonialism compels Westerners to keep their mouths shut about even the most egregious human-rights abuses in former Western colonies.  Certainly there's no question that he'd be appalled by the shady dealings that his daughter's feeble attempt at a cultural-relativist smokescreen seem designed to obscure.  As Joe Kraus of the human-rights group Equatorial Guinea Justice charges, the Sullivan Foundation is “being used to launder the image of the world's longest-serving ruler”; or, to quote Halvorssen, the foundation “appears to be running a disinformation campaign for a dictator.”  In return, apparently, that dictator is bankrolling the foundation, which, according to U.S. News and World Report, is desperately in need of the dough.  The level of support is such that the Equatoguinean summit is even being advertised on buses in Washington, D.C. linking Obiang's dictatorship with Leon H. Sullivan’s name.  (It is interesting to note, by  the way, that the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation was not founded by Sullivan: instead, he founded an Arizona-based group that apparently does in practice what the Sullivan Foundation claims to do in its mission statement.)

If things are as they seem to be, then, Hope Sullivan Masters has made the ultimate deal with the devil: in exchange for cold, hard cash, she's using the cachet of her father's name to give one of the world's most savage governments a squeaky-clean human-rights image – briefly put, she's lining her pockets by running a propaganda operation for a thug.  If this is indeed what's going on here, Masters is committing a multiple betrayal: she's besmirching her father's heroic legacy; she's doing something that will, to some degree, and in some quarters, taint the image of all human-rights organizations; and, most important, she's cynically and selfishly trampling on the already trampled people of Equatorial Guinea, whose greatest hope for the future lies with groups, such as the Human Rights Foundation, that actually care about them.

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