17th African Union summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea

The 17th African Union summit was opened June 30, 2011 in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema.Do African leaders support democracy?

Most African heads of state say they are in favor of democracy, but when it comes to their own power, many toss democracy aside in order to keep their grip on power.

That contradiction is evident at the African Union summit currently being held in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. The leaders of 52 of Africa’s 53 states have gathered for the 17th AU summit June 30 and July 1.

Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the longtime president of Equatorial Guinea, opened the summit by blaming outside “agents” for sparking pro-democracy demonstrations in countries across Africa including his own.

“The intervention for human rights are nowadays causing a massive scourge,” said Obiang at the opening of the AU’s biannual summit in Malabo, according to Associated Press. “The uncounted number of victims, among them women and children, displaced people and the destruction of economic infrastructure does not justify such interventions. Instead of providing solutions to problems we are complicating and worsening world conflicts.”

Obiang did not specifically mention Libya, but the AU has forcefully spoken out against the bombardment that threatens to topple Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. His fall would unsettle other entrenched rulers in Africa, including Obiang, who has maintained total control in Equatorial Guinea since his uncle was overthrown and killed in a coup 32 years ago.

Obiang’s Equatoria Guinea is considered among the most undemocratic in the world, one that has never had elections deemed free and fair, and where opponents to the regime are systematically tortured, according to Human Rights Watch and the report of the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Torture.

“I draw attention here to those agents accustomed to manipulating the innocence and the good faith of our youth and inexperienced population to unnecessarily cause sterile revolutions,” he said in Spanish, the national language of Equatorial Guinea. “This is the case of my country, Equatorial Guinea, which is victimized by a systematic campaign of misinformation by these agents.”

North Africa’s “Arab Spring” has not spread south to sub-Saharan Africa, largely because leaders like Obiang have clamped down at any sign of dissent.

In Malabo, reporters were told by the minister of information that state TV would not be discussing the events in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya because they do not have correspondents in those countries who can ascertain if the information being reported by the international media is correct.

Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe is attending the summit. Mugabe, 87 and in power for 31 years, has repeatedly used violence, arrests and vote-rigging to stay in power, according to human rights activists and diplomats. In Mugabe’s Zimbabwe even watching video footage of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt can bring treason charges punishable by death.

And in Cameroon, where 77-year-old President Paul Biya has ruled since 1982, the government ordered cell phone companies to suspend mobile services for Twitter after citizens used the site to organize a “Drive Out Biya” march.

Traditionally the AU has chosen to support its leaders at the expense of the people they govern, but the recent conflict in Ivory Coast may have marked a turning point.

An African Union panel charged with finding a solution to the Ivory Coast conflict initially backed Laurent Gbagbo, the country’s outgoing president who lost last year’s presidential election and took his country to the brink of civil war in an effort to stay in office. But under international pressure, however, the panel that included Obiang eventually called for Gbagbo to step down.

The same evolution may be in the works on Libya. Embattled Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is casting a long shadow at the AU summit. The AU has an ad hoc committee charged with dealing with the Libyan crisis and it has issued numerous statements supporting Gaddafi and advocating talks between the Libyan leader and the rebels fighting to overthrow him.

But now there are signs that the AU committe is pulling away from its support for Gaddafi. The committee said Thursday in Malabo that is will submit new proposals on Libya to the AU summit.

Britain’s Minister for Africa Henry Bellingham attended the first part of the conference and said he had met with many of the foreign ministers of the 53 member nations attending the conference, and found that even those who were previously reluctant to call for Gadhafi’s ouster are now privately agreeing that he should go.

The loss of support from the African Union would be an especially bitter blow to Gaddafi, who was the driving force to create the organization. Gaddafi donated millions of dollars to transform the Organization of African Unity into the AU in 2002 and he contributed money to keep the AU functioning.

As the leaders discuss how to help Africa’s poor, they will be sitting in luxury at the Sipopo Resort. Critics of Obiang say the money spent on developing Sipopo, including a 6-lane highway, luxury villas, several towers, a golf course, and other finishing touches could have instead been spent on the poor of Equatorial Guinea, reports Reuters. Malabo, the capital, is on Bioko Island off the coast of Equatorial Guinea.

Also on the agenda for opening day discussions is the creation of the Pan African Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Eradication Campaign (PATTEC) for Central Africa, according to the African Union website’s official schedule.

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