The African Union may take on the controversial UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences after talks were held on the issue by African leaders on the margins of the African Union (AU) summit in Kampala last month.
"If Equatorial Guinea sends us an application to consider the awards, we will accept that application," Jean Pierre Ezin, AU commissioner for human resources, science and technology told SciDev.Net. "However, like any proposal from member states, that application will be studied, and we will see if the content is appropriate to move ahead."
Ezin said the AU Commission in Addis Ababa had not yet received anything on the prize from Equatorial Guinea.
UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) member states agreed in 2008 to establish the award with a US$3 million endowment from Equatorial Guinea's president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, but the decision on the first prize due to be awarded last March was postponed because of a public outcry over apparent association with the Obiang regime.
The disputed award has thrown UNESCO into disarray, after one member of the five-member prize jury resigned in June, SciDev.Net has learnt.
The controversy has also split UNESCO member states into two opposing camps with African countries in favour of the prize and western countries, joined by vocal human rights organisations, calling for the prize to be cancelled.
In an indication of the divide at a pre-board meeting earlier this year, African delegates attacked awards associated with controversial individuals from the West, such as the prestigious L'Oreal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science prize, whose founder Liliane Bettencourt was involved in a corruption probe involving an alleged massive tax rebate in France.
China and Libya sided with African delegates, saying that awards should not be decided on the basis of a country's human rights record. China recently funded the UNESCO Asia Pacific Programme for Educational Innovation for Development (APEID) award, known as the UNESCO-APEID Wenhui Award for Educational Innovation, which is about to announce its first winner this October.
"I am receiving letters, messages and statements on a daily basis from a whole range of constituencies from around the world — not only from NGOs but from representatives from the scientific community, from member states, parliamentarians and intellectuals from all regions," UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova told Paris-based diplomats at a board meeting in June. "Many have urged me to sever UNESCO's association with the prize."
"This global campaign is unmatched in scope by any other event in the last decades of the life of this organisation," Bokova said.
AU's takeover of the administration of the disputed award could give the award a new lease. "The African Union is a major partner for us and groups the African member states, so it is a logical partner to negotiate with," UNESCO spokeswoman Sue Williams told SciDev.Net.
She added that a lot of diplomatic activity, consultations and negotiations, have been going on during the summer — much of this had been behind closed doors "to keep the negotiations as calm as possible". "It has been fairly intense," she said.
However diplomats in Paris said that no clear plan had so far emerged and that Obiang himself may not agree to his prize being "downgraded" from a global prize to a regional one. "Obiang wants to be in the international limelight," a western diplomat said.
Another diplomat said the Obiang prize could be a "poisoned chalice" for the AU as it had been for UNESCO. African diplomats in Paris said the AU did not want to be an "organisation of last resort".
Setting the stage for the UNESCO board's make-or-break meeting in October, Obiang has refused to back down.
"We have no doubt that the entities that created this controversy are showing their true colonialist, discriminatory, racist and prejudiced identity by not accepting than an African president can confer an award of this kind," said an official Equatorial Guinea statement released in June.
"An organisation should not set up an award just because of the money," said Mohamed Hassan, head of TWAS, The Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, Trieste, Italy, which jointly administers the AU-TWAS Young African Scientist award. "It would be wrong for a prestigious organisation to publicise that name if it were controversial, TWAS, for example, would not accept that in setting up an award," he told SciDev.Net.
He also warned that political bodies such as UNESCO and the AU had to ensure an independent panel and peer-review to select the winners. "There should be no political strings attached to selection," he said.