Saturday, February 12, 2011

Rumblings in Gabon

In the last couple of days, some of the Africa-based/interested reporters I follow on Twitter have mentioned growing signs of political turmoil in Gabon (just do a search, you'll find them).

Since Ink Spots friend Carl Prine asked what I thought might be Egypt/Tunisia implications for sub-Saharan Africa, I thought I would dig around a little bit and see what I would find. I haven't yet seen any implication for the current political deadlock in Cote d'Ivoire but I'll be writing about that for Valentine's Day.

Gabon, you might recall, is a small, oil rich, former French colony in West Africa. Libreville has long been home to the Bongo family. Omar Bongo died a couple years ago and his son Ali, was "elected" President.

This blog post (from Accra) explains what has been going on in Gabon. In short, the opposition leader, André Mba Obame, who is thought to have won the 2009 elections that permitted Bongo Jr. to replace his father, has sworn himself in President (January 29th). He took refuge in the Libreville offices of the UN Development Program's (the article says it's the party's HQ but on further checking it's UN offices, see the links below). Security forces violently tried to take over the compound and thousands of students (and citizens) have taken to the streets, not just in the capital but around the country on several occasions since then. In addition, a private TV station was ordered to shut down and the opposition party was disbanded.

As the website Global Voices explains:
Thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets of the nation’s capital, Libreville, on January 29th, and faced violent suppression from Ali Bongo’s troops. Protests have spread to other cities, and the crackdown against them has become increasingly fierce. Protests planned for February 5th and 8th were both suppressed with tear gas. At this point, it’s unclear whether protesters will be able to continue pressuring the government, or whether the crackdown has driven dissent underground.

Anyway, these stories (here, here, here) describe what has been going on there. But to summarize: the Bongo family is thought to have stolen 8% of the country's GDP but while oil revenues have made a small group of people rich, 30% of the country's 1.5 million people still live in poverty, and it's clear that Bongo Jr. likely didn't win. He retains the support of France, major French investors such as Vincent Bollore --yes, the Bollore who lent Sarkozy his yacht so that the President could go on vacation.

I went looking around for stories in the French speaking media but was unsuccessful (nothing in Le Monde, nothing in Jeune Afrique, same thing from Radio France Internationale). One of the articles I linked to above mentions an interview with Bollore which basically says he supports Bongo and stability in Gabon (and that democracy there provides a basis for foreign investment). One of the articles mentions there was a small protests in Paris to support the people of Gabon. Unlike for both Tunisia and Egypt, senior French officials--that is the French Foreign Minister for Tunisia who used a Ben Ali jet while she was on vacation there during the protests and the Prime Minister, Francois Fillon who used a Mubarak jet in Egypt--have not yet been re-exposed for their scandalous friendship with Gabon's leadership but I think that's a matter of time.

I couldn't find much else but keep a tab on this page, it will be interesting to see whether the people of Gabon are inspired by their Tunisian and Egyptian sisters and brothers.


  1. Lil, I was thinking of it in a slightly different way.

    If we agree that what made the "revolutions" (I'm not willing to go that far yet) in Tunis and Cairo so immediate and effective was the fact that it broke out amongst a young cohort of angry people with access to global technologies: Sat TV, cell phones, online social networking sites, Twitter, et al.

    It wasn't only that they could more rapidly respond to the slower, dimmer state apparatus, but also potentially rival organizations with deeper histories of revolt, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

    It's this increasingly cosmopolitan, globalized and young group that I'm interested in and I think you are, too.

    Since I've spent a bit of time in sub-Saharan Africa, I was wondering which states are similar to Iran, Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt, which have been hit in recent years by this new phenomenon of protest.

    One must also have a somewhat repressive state system, often built on patronage and back stopped by cronies in the security forces. Bonus points if there's a large overseas diaspora that's been fomenting change, learning the lingo of western political discourse and adapting new technologies.

    I'm thinking maybe Kenya (recall the Wikileaks mini-revolt there), Madagascar and, possibly, Ethiopia.

    What do you think?


  2. Carl--that's interesting. I agree with you on not (yet) being able to attribute these events entirely to a young, well-connected population, angry with an oppressive and corrupt regime. For one thing, I don't think we have enough reliable data on how many people in Egypt and Tunisia actually have easy access to the web, Facebook, Twitter and satellite TV. So how do we make that link?

    In Sub-Saharan Africa, yes, everyone has a cell-phone but how many people actually use Twitter or watch satellite TV? What happens when the regime shuts them down? Don’t they fall back on good old word of mouth?

    I think your description of oppression, patronage, link to security systems (with links to active diaporas) is pretty apt. I would add leaders who leverage their role with regional and global players, often at the expense of their populations.

    So if we’re looking for countries that meet those conditions then yes, I would agree with Kenya. Madagascar, I don't know enough about. I think Ethiopia is a possibility. Do you have other thoughts? What do you think of Rwanda? How about Eritrea?

  3. Actually, I forgot another one: Uganda (given upcoming "elections.") Thoughts?

  4. Rwanda is a special case (as is much of central Africa for all the obvious reasons).

    The revolutionary government in Eritrea I don't see falling anytime soon, although there is a large diaspora and they have links to a globalized movement.

    Ethiopia seems a more likely candidate, especially because of lingering doubts about the previous election and the subsequent crackdown (and long ties to the US and unresolved regional wars that don't help Addis).

    But I haven't been to Eritrea, so I want to hold off judgment.

    There are so many ingenious ways cell phones are being used today, especially with Africa's young, that I suspect the medium could become the message and lead to real changes. The fact that micro-banking now can be conducted with cell phones is potentially revolutionary in its own way.

    It does an end-around all those worthless government and crony institutions (and NGOs).

    I think Kenya and Ethiopia.

  5. Of course, Lil, there's also this nettlesome problem:


  6. That is a problem Carl...Interesting link, that does limit things. I guess some of these leaders are taking lessons on controlling the internet switch.


  7. See also Zimbabwe, which is arresting people for even watching Al J.