Gabon’s Silent Struggle

When UN Dispatch editor Mark Goldberg asked me to write a post about the events in Gabon, I quickly Googled “Gabon” to see the recent news about the small African nation. The top news stories were about football and announcements of new contracts for foreign companies. Digging a little deeper, I found a post by Ethan Zuckerman, one of the founders of Global Voices, the citizen-journalist website, where he talks about our responsibility to bear witness to the popular uprisings in Tunisia, in Egypt, and in Gabon.

Indeed, while major news networks are flying out their best, most notable anchors to Cairo, there is a hardly a news wire story about what’s happening in Gabon. And what is happening in Gabon, you might ask. When autocratic, kleptomaniac Omar Bongo – one of the world’s longest standing dictators – died in the summer of 2009, elections were promptly held. About 15 candidates from various political parties were in the running for the August 30 vote, Gabon’s first ever “true” democratic election. At the time, the Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the communications ministry for “arbitrarily harass[ing] and censor[ing] local and foreign journalists.”

Nicolas Sarkozy with Omar Bongo.

Unsurprisingly, Omar Bongo’s son – Ali Bongo – was declared to have won shortly after the election, both by the national election commission and the country’s highest court. Ali Bongo’s victory was met with a burst of violence from opposition supporters, who, in retaliation, attacked French property in Gabon (France is considered a long standing ally of the oppressive Bongo regimes.) Opposition candidates asked for a recount, which ended up confirming the original result, and Ali Bongo was sworn in by mid-October. Since then, legislative elections yielded a majority for Bongo. In December 2010, the Gabonese parliament passed an amendment allowing the president to extend his mandate “in case of emergency”, leaving the door open for continued undemocratic rule.

A few weeks ago, on the same day that Egyptian protesters started taking to the streets en masse, opposition candidate Andre Mba Obame – who firmly believes he won the election – challenged Ali Bongo’s presidency by declaring himself president and appointing his own cabinet – all this broadcast on the TV channel he owns, TV+. This prompted the Gabonese government to dissolve Obame’s party and shut down his TV station’s broadcast, and the AU called for the opposition to exercise restraint. Meanwhile, Obame holed up in UNDP’s headquarters, encouraged his supporters to imitate their brethren in Tunisia and take to the streets. These protests were violently suppressed by the government, and opposition leaders have allegedly been kidnapped. The government, for its part, is dismissing this recent revolt a “non-event.” As Ethan Zuckerman notes in his post, “At this point, it’s unclear whether protesters will be able to continue pressuring the government, or whether the crackdown has driven dissent underground.”

So why is there so little media interest in Gabon? Gabon has a small population of 1.5 million, and is considered a “middle-income” country due to its approximately $7,000 per capita GDP. (It’s important to note that 50% of the country’s GDP comes from oil wealth, which, similarly to its neighbor Equatorial Guinea, has not benefited the population equally. I couldn’t find an accurate number for Gabon’s Gini Coefficient, which calculates the level of inequality, but it’s well-known that the ruling classes have continually plundered the national wealth for their personal benefit.) Gabonese protesters – unlike Tunisians and Egyptians – have not been relying on social media. Zuckeman notes that there are about 99,000 internet users and 25,000 Facebook users in Gabon. I’m sure the number of Twitter users is even smaller, and this has made the kind of global attention that existed for Egypt and Tunisia difficult to come by. I was honestly surprised to see that even Reuters – who typically has some of the best coverage of relatively obscure events – has published very few stories about the revolt in Gabon.

The silent struggle underway in Gabon is a reminder that subjugated people everywhere are looking to free themselves and their country from oppressive rule. This aspiration should be supported and encouraged wherever it materializes itself. We have not seen the same outpouring of support for Gabon as for the courageous people of Egypt and Tunisia in the last few weeks, though, and we are failing to bear witness to their struggle.