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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Gabon’s Embattled Ex-Dictator Is Facing Off with His Students Over Injustice

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Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue was at the center of the very first global AIDS epidemic, which began in Africa and is still ravaging the continent. He went on to be a driver of change, aiding the spread of testing and preventing mother-to-child transmission, and even taking part in programs to support condom distribution in Africa. Then, in 2015, he was convicted of corruption for possessing $116 million worth of bribes from oil companies seeking lucrative contracts in the country. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Portuguese court and has since been jailed at the Aldado penitentiary in Lisbon. Obiang is due for a hearing Dec. 7 to determine if Portugal is legally allowed to keep his extradition, despite a desperate plea for clemency.

Last week, the 54-year-old Obiang got a chance to speak to New York University student community about those experiences, in the belief that his jailing is an unfair miscarriage of justice. Most seemed unaware that Portuguese officials are fighting his extradition.

“We all have a responsibility as citizens and human beings to find ways to fight for truth,” Obiang said. “My conviction and the conscience of the people of Gabon means what I did in the right thing.” He invoked his father, Mobutu Sese Seko, who was ruled Gabon for more than 20 years and who abolished the death penalty in 1997.

“It’s rare that I am recognized in the street,” Obiang said. “When I am recognized by my compatriots, I let them know what they are doing is wrong. The truth is important, and I am very proud of being one of these authors of truth.”

But Obiang’s case demonstrates the obstacles for those who want to challenge the power of foreign governments.

“The idea of fighting for justice and the end of dictatorships comes through no words but action,” said Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, an African studies professor at NYU.

This event is a part of a global endeavor to push for the liberation of political prisoners, with the idea that ultimately these prisoners are in prison for their standing up for the rights of their fellow citizens and not their opposition to political leaders. “We, the human rights community, want our message to be loud and clear: we are fighting for you and it’s crucial that you know this,” said Wilson-Hartgrove.

In fact, it was the promotion of this vision of liberation by the professor’s students that was a key reason for attending this event.

For instance, Obiang said he decided to go public about corruption in his country after being approached by Wilson-Hartgrove. Wilson-Hartgrove understood that Obiang had fallen victim to corruption, and he said he felt confident that he could have done more to help him.

“I felt the need to step up my efforts,” Wilson-Hartgrove said. “I couldn’t keep kicking the can and hope the guy would make sense and be saved. I felt I had to do more. It didn’t cost me anything, but that went a long way in making me a more effective advocate.”

Obiang and Wilson-Hartgrove are in part hopeful that this helps propel their cause forward.

“This helps spread our awareness around this issue,” Wilson-Hartgrove said. “I think by making it known that we as human rights activists, as campus activists are paying attention to the repression in Gabon and trying to do something about it, that makes a difference. This is one more small step in the broader campaign to make a real change in Gabon.”

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