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Prominent African intellectuals have stepped up their opposition to a controversial science prize sponsored by Equatorial Guinea's president.

Nobel laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Wole Soyinka, Graça Machel of Mozambique and Nigerian author Chinua Achebe joined 123 other Africans, including citizens of Equatorial Guinea, in voicing their objections to the prize in a letter addressed to UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), under whose name the award is to be given.

The UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences is the subject of make-or-break discussions at UNESCO's executive board meeting in Paris this month (October 5−21).

The group objects to the US$3 million endowment being funded by, and named after, a dictator with a dubious human rights record. The prize was voted for unanimously by UNESCO's executive board in 2008, but a decision was taken in June this year to delay the first awards after human rights groups stepped up their opposition last year.

"The continued existence of this prize is inimical to UNESCO's mission and an affront to Africans everywhere who work for the betterment of our countries," said the letter, which was issued yesterday.

"Not all Africans believe that a dictator should be able to purchase legitimacy through a prize created in Paris.

"UNESCO's executive board has a responsibility to protect the organization's integrity, which this prize places in jeopardy."

At the same time a group of writers and intellectuals from Latin America, including 2010 Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, has called for the prize to be abandoned. Equatorial Guinea is a former Spanish colony.

And the United States has put forward a resolution to the 58-nation executive board (8 October) calling for the withdrawal of the prize "in view of the strong global reaction" to the prize and its "negative impact on the credibility, prestige and basic values of UNESCO".

Similar words were used by French diplomats at the board's meeting this week, indicating European support for the US resolution.

But there is widespread support for the prize by African and Arab delegations to UNESCO. They say such moves, including the US resolution, will only delay the prize further, rather than lead to its withdrawal.

Yesterday (11 October) the Africa Group within UNESCO circulated a letter to all delegations reconfirming its support for the prize. It is widely believed that Western countries opposing the prize would be outnumbered by African and other nations favouring it.

Equatorial Guinea has called on UNESCO to stop delaying the prize. The country's minister of foreign affairs Pastor Micha Ondo Bile told a UN General Assembly meeting in New York last month that UNESCO was obliged to proceed.

Bile described the situation as "unprecedented and therefore disturbing" because the prize had the potential to lessen the suffering of people worldwide, and particularly in Africa, adding that some NGOs were being racist.

Link to African letter