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Center for International Higher Education

International Network for Higher Education in Africa

editorial series

Opinion pieces regarding higher education in Africa.


Damtew

October 2012

Rejecting Tainted Recognitions—Honoring Academic Citadels

Damtew Teferra Ph.D.
Dr. Damtew Teferra is Founding Director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa at CIHE, Boston College (teferra@bc.edu).

This is the third time that an editorial on the same issue appears on this forum. It concerns the highly controversial and dubious UNESCO-affiliated award which has outraged Nobel Prize winners, intellectuals, writers, journalists, scientists, civil society groups and governments. On July 17, 2012, the fight to block this deeply tainted Prize has been lost; despite numerous powerful voices and massive criticisms, the UNESCO Executive Board went ahead with awarding the Prize, now known as UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences.

In fierce reaction, Homero Aridjis, the Mexican former ambassador to Unesco, said: "It is shameful that Unesco is party to a prize given by Africa's longest reigning dictator, who has pillaged his country's wealth, keeping the majority of the population in dire poverty, and who has a long record of human rights abuse [and] repression of freedom of the press.”

He went on further criticizing the institution itself: “Unesco's mission is to promote universal respect for human rights to justice and the fundamental liberties to which all humankind is entitled.” In his yet damning comment, he lambasted the multilateral institution: “Unesco's prestige is sullied by its endorsement of a prize which bears the weight of suffering of Equatorial Guinea's people, and which is tinged with their blood.”

Along similar lines, Tutu Alicante, director of the human rights group EG Justice, hammered it further striking direct and hard. He said, “It is shameful and utterly irresponsible for UNESCO to award this prize, given the litany of serious legal and ethical problems surrounding it. Beyond letting itself [to] be used to polish the sullied image of [President] Obiang [of Equatorial Guinea], UNESCO also risks ruining its own credibility.”

The Shift in the Strategy

Now that the act has been committed, the strategy in discrediting the “shameful” Award should move from the “perpetrators” to the “accomplices”, i.e. the recipients themselves and their respective institutions.

The Burden of Proof

The recipients of this infamous Award, as impressive as they may be, are under moral and professional obligations to decline it. They should review the literature, read the papers, and talk directly to those who have firsthand information on the matter, if some doubt still lingers in their minds. Even better, they could visit the country for firsthand information, without possible direct and indirect interference of government minders and state machinations. Well, they could start their own journey of investigative journalism from the fledgling national higher learning institutions in the country—the very objective which the Prize purported to advance.

Rejecting the Award

In tandem, a statement must also go out to those countries and their institutions that host these three scientists—Maged Al-Sherbiny of Egypt, Felix Dapare Dakora of South Africa and Rossana Arroyo of Mexico—that the Award adds no value to their standing as a community of scientists. The institutions and the communities where these individuals work and practice must also be peppered with petition, comments, and questions to persuade the scientists to turn down the Award. Furthermore, the international organizations, scientific academies, funders, and other relevant organizations should also refuse to recognize the Award, at least until such time that the doubt casted on the Award, by the legal counsel of UNESCO itself, is removed.

The Hypocrisy

This Prize is not simply about the purported “dirty” money and the alleged personality who is peddling it; it is not also about violating the sanctity of the academic citadels—both of them very important reasons. But it is also that this drama takes place by subjecting own institutions to hardship, as stated in the earlier articles that provided some stunning figures. The higher learning institutions in Equatorial Guinea are simply in terrible shape: the libraries, the labs, and the infrastructure are in shambles. And it is this utter hypocrisy that is driving many to question and reject this tainted Prize.

Cleansing “Dirty” Image

The struggle for preventing “dirty” money from corrupting the higher education and scientific citadels continues. For instance, already, Sudanese institutions are renaming some of the establishments paid by and named after the late dictator of Libya, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. For Egyptians who have experienced bitter struggle for democracy and freedom recently, this Award, to one of their fellow countryman, is not something they could be proud of. The same goes to South Africa, which still has to recover from massive injustices perpetrated in the Apartheid era, and Mexico, where the underworld and “dirty” money are of great national challenges. It is hoped that these countries, their institutions and their respective fellows won’t celebrate this uncelebrated Prize. As the fight for uprooting bad weeds continues, the battle for denying new ones must be intensified concurrently.

In Conclusion: Academic Heroes

By rejecting the Award, the three scientists would do a great honor of historic proportions to the integrity and sanctity of the academic citadels—everywhere. The act may also serve as an expression of powerful solidarity with scientists, scholars and intellectuals struggling in Equatorial Guinea, Africa and elsewhere. For sure, they will be hailed as heroes especially by those who have passionately campaigned against, but at the end failed, due to matters beyond their immediate capacity.

Moreover, it is conceivable that institutions around the world would recognize, and moreover remember, the scientists not simply for their scientific achievements but also standing for academic freedom, social justice, and integrity. For sure, this possible recognition is many times bigger than a tainted recognition that attracts revulsion from all walks of life.

This editorial is a longer essay building on a blog post by the same author available at The World View.

Damtew Teferra, Ph. D., is Founding Director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa (INHEA). He may be reached at teferra@bc.edu.