Dictators R Us: Gabon as the latest UK best friend


After a quick visit to Saudi Arabia it now seems clear that the UK government of David Cameron is determined not to let a little things such as dictatorship, corruption or human rights violations get in the way of business. Now the UK is courting Gabon’s president Ali Bongo Odimbwa all the way to the oil field….

Ali Bongo is the son of Gabon’s long-time dictator, Omar Bongo, who died in 2009 after ruling the oil-producing country for four decades. Bongo junior came to power in elections that were widely accepted by Gabonese as rigged although international observers were not so critical. The opposition rejected the official results, and riots broke out in Gabon’s second city, Port-Gentil. 

With a population of only 1.5 million and vast oil wealth, Gabon is one of the richest countries in Africa. However, in common with other oil-producing states in Africa, around 20 per cent of the population hold 90 percent of the wealth.

In a clear indication of intentions, the UK is about to open an office for a ‘commercial attache’ in Gabon’s capital Libreville. High Commissioner to Cameroon and non-resident Ambassador to Gabon, Bharat Josh, recently visited the country on a ‘fact-finding’ mission to prepare the way for growing trade links between Gabon and Britain. This follows several visits to the UK when Ali Bongo met Prime Minister David Cameron and Africa Minister Henry Bellingham in May.

President Bongo was also an enthusiastic visitor to the UK Olympics during the summer where he met HRH the Prince of York and Mr Bellingham. He also met with their Royal Highnesses the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Henry of Wales, and invited them to Gabon. This has apparently been accepted and scheduled for next year.

Gabon is clearly going flat out to court the UK and the US including switching the national language to English from French. Gabon was a key asset for Francafrique since independence from France in 1961. Ali Bongo’s father Omar was kept in power with the support of France and he certainly paid his dues.  Bongo senior allegedly lined his pockets with money from a 37-million-dollar (28-million-euro) bank embezzlement scheme and funneled some of it to French political parties and former President Nicolas Sarkozy, according to a classified US embassy cable. The same Embassy source alleges that senior Gabonese political`leadership, including the late President Omar Bongo and his son Ali Bongo benefited from the embezzlement.

The Bongo family run Gabon like a family piggy bank. In a report for ABC News, Senator Carl Levin said: “Omar Bongo and now his son Ali Bongo have for more than 40 years run a regime in Gabon which diverts their country’s wealth for their family’s personal use.” ABC reported that the family owns homes in the US and 30 luxury properties in France, “including a $120 million, 14-bedroom townhouse in Paris that Ali Bongo bought just last year.” [2011]

A US State Department report asserts that despite ‘some improvements’, Gabon is still a place of “widespread government corruption” marked by the “use of excessive force by police,” where even taking picture of the Bongos’ many palaces is against the law.

Top of the list for the UK ambassadorial visit in September was Setanta Energy. Setanta is in line to develop the Gabon Roussette oilfield in a deal shared between the company and an Angolan company  led by French Miclet Vincent and the Angolan Sandro Dos Santos.

The company claims it could start producing oil, with an estimated value of around $4 billion at current prices, 25% of which would accrue to Gabon, within 2 years. However, diplomatic sources have suggested that the proposed partner in the deal is “an unknown company of dubious pedigree, 51% Angolan and 49% registered to a blind trust in BVI.”  This ‘dubious partner’ has been named as Petroplus by Africa Intelligence   although this doesn’t seem to be the Swiss-based company that went into administration.

Whoever the shady partner-in-waiting turns out to be, the UK clearly cares more for business than the so-called ethical foreign policy once claimed. Amnesty International suggests that Gabon is a police state controlled by Bongo’s party the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG). Bongo has the right to veto legislation already passed and dissolve the national assembly, call a new election, or govern by presidential decree. The Constitutional Court is presided over by none other than Ali Bongo’s mother and is described by activists as one of the main blocks to democracy. With a Republican Guard protecting him and a military formed from his own Bateke ethnic group and allies, Bongo ticks all the boxes that describe a fully-paid-up dictatorship.

According to an impassioned letter written by a group of civil society activists on the occasion of a visit by Ali Bongo to the US and hosted by Barack Obama, “Journalists are imprisoned and threatened with death simply because they expose corruption and anti-democratic actions and accuse people from the government or the president’s family.”

The US is also on the Gabon best friends list with Gabon made eligible for preferential trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. According to the US State Department, US investments in Gabon are concentrated in the oil and mineral sectors. The State Department, ignoring a report on corruption produced by its own staff goes on to say: “the United States has welcomed the reforms that Gabon has taken to bring more transparency and accountability to government.”

With more front than Walmart, Ali Bongo blames the ‘historic issues from the previous administration’ and fraud by ‘some international oil companies’ for stalling the UK’s investment plans. While a leaked document, purportedly from the UK ambassadorial visit, suggests that the UK is eager to get deals in the bag, saying to the Gabon government: “it was important to keep going and to look for early deliverables.”

Citing “the negative international coverage following the arrests of opposition sympathisers and closure of two opposition newspapers following the return of Andre Mba Obame (erstwhile leader of the National Union, the party banned in 2011”, the UK visitors suggested Gabon needed an image makeover. The diplomat comments: “I was struck that Obame’s people were getting their story out there aggressively, including using digital media: the government needed to get its story out too.” That seems to be the essence of UK foreign policy in Africa in 2012.

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