The biennial summit organized by the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation, located in the heart of K Street, has for two decades been a place for world leaders to convene and talk about solutions for Africa with the help of the African diaspora.
Previous attendees include presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, General Colin Powell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
And yet this year, the foundation—named after Baptist minister and Martin Luther King-era civil rights leader Rev. Leon Sullivan—has made an odd choice about the location and host of its summit. This August, the Sullivan Summit will be held in the central West African country of Equatorial Guinea, with host "His Excellency Teodoro Obiang-Mbasago."
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The foundation boasts on its website that under President Obiang's rule, tiny Equatorial Guinea has "enjoyed the most productive period of peace, stability and development in its history."
But the country has also developed one of the worst human rights records under Obiang, who since the death of Moammar Gaddafi holds the title of Africa's longest-ruling leader.
When presidential elections were held in 2009, Obiang received almost 100 percent of the vote in an election widely seen as fraudulent. Equatorial Guinea ranked miserably in Freedom House's "2012 Freedom in the World" report, as well as the Committee to Protect Journalist's study of most censored countries. Recent State Department reports decry incidents of "arbitrary arrest, detention, and incommunicado detention" under Obiang and Human Rights Watch calls Obiang's rule a "dictatorship."
Nevertheless, the Sullivan Foundation goes on to praise Obiang for "the advancement Equatorial Guinea has made in human development and the human rights arena."
The group also lauds Equatorial Guinea's income per capita, which the foundation notes has risen to one of the highest on the continent. Much of that income, however, is concentrated in the hands of a few—namely Obiang, his family, and his associates, according to a 2011 investigation by the Department of Justice.
The question, then, becomes this: Why is a foundation committed to a better Africa promoting a dictator continually decried for his human rights and other abuses?
A source close to the Sullivan Foundation tells Whispers that the foundation is hard up for cash, and that the now oil-rich government of Equatorial Guinea is happy to fill that gap.
The foundation insists that every country that has hosted a summit has supported them financially. "We cannot do the summits without that support," Sullivan Summit spokesman Aly Ramji told Whispers. "So yes, the Equatorial Guinea government is supporting us."
Ramji said Equatorial Guinea was chosen because the country "has been marred by a lot of negative press," and the foundation hopes to change that. "There are a lot of new development programs in Equatorial Guinea," Ramji said, though he did not share what those programs were. "We want to communicate this to the world."
The Sullivan Foundation has not yet released the summit's guest list, but Ramji says that a number of members of Congress and other decision-makers from Washington are expected to attend.
Joe Kraus, program and development director at human rights group Equatorial Guinea Justice, calls it "a shame" that a foundation associated with Reverend Leon Sullivan "is now being used to launder the image of the world's longest-serving ruler."
The foundation already once created a stir over its seeming support of Obiang, when Equatorial Guinea's leader received the foundation's Beacon for Africa award late last year, an award earlier given to Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice.
After facing fierce criticism for the decision, Sullivan Foundation President and CEO Hope Masters said the award was actually going to the African Union, not Obiang, and that the confusion was because Obiang served as chairman of the African Union in 2011.
"HORRIFYING mistake, [the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation] is NOT honoring Obiang as a champion of Democracy! African Union being honored," she tweeted in October.
The Equatorial Guinea government, however, has continued to maintain that the award is Obiang's.