Since it began two decades ago, the biennial summit organized by the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation was an opportunity for world leaders to convene and talk about solutions for Africa. Past attendees include Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, General Colin Powell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The foundation drew enormous respect because of its namesake, iconic civil rights leader Rev. Leon Sullivan, and as recently as 2010 President Clinton was listed as an honorary member of the foundation's board.
But after the foundation chose Equatorial Guinea and its human-rights abusing president as this year's summit host, many politicians and civil rights leaders say they won't be attending.
A State Department list of human rights abuses under Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who is Africa's longest-serving leader, include: "abridgement of citizens' right to change their government; instances of physical abuse of prisoners and detainees by security forces; arbitrary arrest, detention, and incommunicado detention." Human Rights Watch calls Obiang's rule a "dictatorship."
As a result, two human rights groups have sent strongly-worded letters decrying the summit's host location. The Washington-based Equatorial Guinea Justice sent their letter in February, while the New York-based Human Rights Foundation sent theirs on Friday.
Joe Kraus, program and development director at EG Justice, said it was "a shame" that a foundation associated with Rev. Sullivan was "being used to launder the image" of Obiang.
Yet the foundation has continued preparations for the August summit, and a VIP invite list obtained by Whispers lists as invited guests Vice Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee Donna Brazile; Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter; Jacksonville, Fla., Mayor Alvin Brown; National Urban League President Marc Morial; the Rev. Al Sharpton; and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
The Sullivan Foundation refused to talk about the list of invitees to the summit, telling Whispers the official invite list had not been made public yet.
But when invited politicians were reached to talk about the summit, many said they weren't attending. A spokesman for Nutter said he would not be there. A spokesman for Mayor said his office had not heard of the event, and Brazile told Whispers she wasn't familiar with the summit.
Morial, president of the National Urban League, told Whispers that while "Rev. Sullivan is iconic in our community," and "done a lot to build relationships between Africa and African-Americans," he would not be attending this year due to "scheduling." Morial has attended at least one Sullivan Summit in the past.
But the absence that may be most indicative of the lack of support for this year's summit is that of Rev. Jesse Jackson, who worked closely with Rev. Sullivan during the civil rights era.
Jackson's chief of staff at the Rainbow Push Coalition, John Mitchell, confirmed to Whispers that Jackson will not be attending.
At the 2008 Sullivan Summit, Jackson called on guests during the dinner to help raise $25,000 for Tanzania's schools. Within half an hour, more than $50,000 had come in. The Sullivan Foundation called it "the most moving and memorable gesture" of the summit.
John Hope Bryant, the founder of financial literacy nonprofit Operation HOPE, was to be a keynote speaker at the summit but tweeted Friday that he would not be attending. Bryant did not give a reason for his absence, or immediately return a request for comment.
A source close to the Sullivan Foundation told Whispers last Monday that he believed the foundation decided to host the summit in Equatorial Guinea because the foundation was hard up for cash, and that the oil-rich government of Equatorial Guinea was happy to fill the gap.
The foundation insists that every summit's host country 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 by sharing some of the new development programs the government has started.
But human rights advocates are skeptical, including Human Rights Foundation president Thor Halvorssen, who said of Obiang: "There isn't enough lipstick in the world for this pig."
George Ayittey, a Ghanian economist and president of the Free Africa Foundation, called it "heartbreaking" that an organization "devoted to the principles of the late Leon H. Sullivan, who fought so valiantly for civil rights and against Apartheid, would debase itself by collaborating with such a cruel tyrant."
Other invitees to the summit include actor Chris Tucker, singers J. Cole and Jill Scott, basketball legend Earl "the Pearl" Monroe, Stevie Wonder, and Benjamin Crump, attorney for the family of Trayvon Martin. It is unclear whether they will attend.
Update, 2:45 p.m.:
Sullivan Foundation President and CEO Hope Masters, who is also the late Rev. Sullivan's daughter, has released a statement in response to the ongoing criticism of the summit's host location in Equatorial Guinea.
Masters called the criticism "misguided rants" and argued that Obiang has "modernized his country and has implemented major political reforms." She also pointed out that Obiang in 2011 was elected to serve a one-year term as the president of the African Union.
"My father did not agree with those who believed that solutions could be achieved by ignoring the issues that exist," she wrote, adding that she hoped the summit would be a "teachable moment" for those who doubted the progress of Equatorial Guinea.
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