Tarnishing the Sullivan Legacy by Honoring Obiang | Freedom House

Tarnishing the Sullivan Legacy by Honoring Obiang

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by Arch Puddington and Morgan Huston*

The Reverend Leon H. Sullivan is remembered today as one of the most respected leaders of the American civil rights movement. For many decades, he served as pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia, a northern city with a reputation for hostility to racial change. From early on, Sullivan identified lack of economic opportunity as a crucial element of racial inequality. Thus among his first campaigns was an economic boycott directed at major corporations in Philadelphia that refused to interview young black job applicants. “Selective patronage,” Sullivan called it.

Sullivan was unusual in that, even in the most racially polarized periods of the civil rights struggle, he eschewed ultra-militancy, ignored the proposition that black people could advance only if the American socioeconomic system underwent a top-to-bottom reordering, and derided schemes of racial separatism. Instead, he proposed a combination of approaches designed to remove the barriers to employment and encourage black communities to develop their own economic institutions. Not all of Sullivan’s schemes worked out as he had hoped. But he consistently demonstrated common sense at a time when that quality was in short supply, and he never wavered in the face of accusations that he had betrayed his racial heritage.

Sullivan was also an internationalist, in the very best sense. He developed a code of behavior, known as the Sullivan Principles, that he hoped corporations doing business with South Africa during the apartheid period would follow. The Sullivan Principles were regarded as an alternative to outright boycott, which many advocated at the time. Sullivan was convinced that the involvement of multinational corporations in South Africa would in the long run do more good than outright isolation. The principles themselves grew out of the same values that inspired Sullivan’s work in Philadelphia. They demanded that black South Africans be given equal employment opportunities, equal pay, and equal treatment within and outside the workplace. After apartheid fell, Sullivan drew up a similar set of principles for corporations seeking to do business elsewhere in Africa. They stressed human rights, democratic institutions, and opposition to corruption.

When he died in 2001, Sullivan left an impressive legacy as a man of optimism and thoughtfulness, who understood the roots of modern injustice.

We mention this background material because, next week, the ideals of Reverend Sullivan will be invoked as a legitimizing fig leaf for what amounts to a thoroughly ignoble event. The Leon H. Sullivan Foundation, an organization committed to “empowering underprivileged people worldwide by promoting the principles of self-help and social responsibility,” and to advocating “for the poor and disadvantaged,” will hold its prestigious ninth biennial summit in Equatorial Guinea, a country ruled by Africa’s longest-serving and arguably most rapacious despot.

As sub-Saharan Africa’s third largest producer of oil, Equatorial Guinea boasts a per capita gross domestic product roughly equivalent to that of Poland or Argentina. Yet two-thirds of its citizens survive on less than a dollar a day. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has amassed a personal fortune estimated at $600 million even as one in three Equatorial Guineans dies before the age of 40. There is no freedom of the press, and dissent is swiftly quashed using the same cruel methods employed by dictators down through the ages. The country has never experienced real elections, and it has long earned the worst possible ratings for political rights and civil liberties in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report.

In the past, the Sullivan summit has drawn an A-list crowd from the political and corporate worlds. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush attended during their presidencies. The upcoming summit’s publicity asserts that world leaders will join members of civil society and academia to discuss development strategies to empower Africans and the African diaspora. The heads of state scheduled to attend are supposed to announce a set of Sullivan Resolutions that will ensure “economic empowerment and human development for the nations of Africa.”

The Sullivan Foundation has vigorously defended its decision in the face of mounting criticism. Among other arguments, it has pointed to Obiang’s plans to build low-income housing and eventually implement democratic reforms as evidence of progress. The foundation cannot resist superlatives in extolling Obiang’s reign of terror, insisting that Equatorial Guinea has under the current leader “enjoyed the most productive period of peace, stability, and development in its history.”

The choice of venue is especially deplorable in the wake of UNESCO’s approval of an award sponsored by Obiang and the initiation of multiple investigations into his and his family’s financial dealings in the United States, France, and Spain. Eager to deflect attention from allegations of graft and high living, Obiang has hired several international public relations and lobbying firms, all of which are looking for ways to improve his image. The UNESCO award and next week’s summit suggest that the money may have been well spent.

The reasons for the Sullivan Foundation’s involvement with Obiang are less than clear. Some reports suggest that it needs money, and it has acknowledged receiving donations from host countries in the past. Money talks, but surely the foundation, which until now enjoyed a benign reputation, could have found a more appropriate host. It has placed itself in the position of participating in a sordid PR offensive designed to burnish the image of a tyrant. In the process, it has tarnished the legacy of its distinguished founder, a man who devoted a lifetime to advancing freedom and economic opportunity, the very opposites of the values that have animated Obiang’s 33-year rule.

* Arch Puddington is vice president for research at Freedom House. Morgan Huston is a member of the Freedom House research staff.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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