Cape Town - 1100603 - Archbishop Emraritus Desmond Tutu speaks about the passing of his dear friend and ANC Stalwart Albertina Sisulu at St George's Cathedral in Cape Town. Photo: Matthew Jordaan

Johannesburg - South African Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu on Tuesday joined a call by rights groups to abolish a Unesco prize named after Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

“Unesco has repeatedly postponed action on the prize in the face of global protest against President Obiang, who has presided over high levels of official corruption, repression and poverty in Equatorial Guinea,” a statement said.

The statement from seven NGO and rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Global Witness, rejected a proposal by Obiang for the prize to be awarded but without mention of his name.

The United Nations cultural organisation in 2010 bowed to pressure from anti-corruption campaigners and suspended the science prize named after Obiang.

Unesco’s governing executive board is to make a final decision on the prize during its session to be held from Monday until March 10 at its Paris headquarters.

“The Unesco-Obiang prize is irreversibly tainted by its association with the repression and high-level corruption of President Obiang's government,” the statement quoted Tutu as saying.

“Giving the prize a different name does nothing to answer these concerns or remove doubts about the origins of the funds that finance the award,” Tutu said.

The Unesco-Obiang Prize for the Life Sciences was created by the board in 2008, and Equatorial Guinea was to finance it for five years for a total of three million dollars.

Obiang has ruled Equatorial Guinea with an iron grip since seizing power in a 1979 coup d'etat. His country is Africa's third biggest oil exporter, but its people live in grinding poverty.

The United States and some European countries have backed calls for the prize to be suspended, but African member states stood by Obiang. - AFP