Mining, Dams and Repression in Gabon

Marc Ona Essangui
Marc Ona Essangui
Abundant natural resources make Gabon one of Africa’s richest nations. The country’s wealth fills the pockets of a small clique, while the people live in misery. Gabon’s strong man Omar Bongo recently imprisoned five civil society partners of International Rivers to stifle calls for change.

Gabon is rich in natural resources such as oil, iron, timber, and hydropower. These resources are not a blessing, but a curse. In terms of its per-capita income, Gabon is richer than Bulgaria, Chile, Malaysia or Russia. Yet oil companies, French colonial interests and a small national elite have managed to siphon off the country’s wealth. The government of Omar Bongo has effectively privatized Gabon’s natural wealth and state for more than 40 years. While Bongo’s family owns 32 residences in France, the population lives in poverty and fear.

Civil society is the only credible voice calling for good governance and human rights in Gabon. Marc Ona Essangui is an outstanding representative of the country’s movement against official corruption. Prevented from studying law because he has been bound to a wheelchair since the age of six, Ona decided to fight for the public good by becoming a civil society activist. He created, chaired or coordinated several important NGOs and associations, including Handicap Sans Frontières, the Gabonese chapter of the Publish What You Pay network, the country’s national NGO federation, and Brainforest.

We have the privilege of working with Marc Ona in raising concerns about the large Belinga iron ore and hydropower project in Gabon. The project would produce 30 million
Belinga: Road to the Dam Site
Belinga: Road to the Dam Site
tons of iron ore per year, and would include two dams to power the mine, a railway line and a deep-water port that will allow the ore to be shipped to China. The proposed Belinga Dam would be located in Ivindo National Park. NGOs are concerned that it will damage the biodiversity of this forest environment, and will not benefit the local population. The project will be built by a Chinese company, and financed by China Exim Bank.

In October 2008, Brainforest and several other organizations raised their concerns about the project in a letter to China Exim Bank. In this letter, Brainforest emphasized “the importance of a detailed impact assessment, and that the study be made publicly available. We also insist on the importance of meeting with local populations effected by the action.” China Exim Bank has never responded to this letter from Gabon’s civil society.

At the end of 2008, Gabon’s government responded in its own way to the calls for justice and good governance. On December 31, the judicial police detained Marc Ona and four of his colleagues from civil society and the media – George Mpaga (President of the Network of Free Civil Society Organizations for Good Governance), Grégoire Ngojia Mintsa (a plaintiff in a case brought against Omar Bongo by Transparency International), Dieudonné Koungou (a journalist with the Tendance newspaper), and Gaston Asseko (technical director of the Sainte Marie radio station).

The five activists were detained at the central prison of Gabon’s capital Libreville. They were charged with “possession of a document for dissemination and propaganda” and incitement to rebellion against state authorities. In Marc Ona’s case, the authorities allege that he kept copies of an open letter to the President by an exiled activist in his house and office. The letter does not call for any violent or undemocratic action, and Ona was only charged with possessing it. This charge, which is subject to a sentence of up to five years, makes a mockery of Gabon’s obligation under the UN covenant on civil and political rights.   

On January 9, International Rivers and several other NGOs called on Omar Bongo to immediately release the five detainees, and to ensure that all charges against them were dropped. Three days later, the authorities released the detainees on bail, but did not drop their charges. They continue to hang like a Damocles sword over the civil society activists.

Gabon’s President has the choice of respecting his government’s obligations under international law, or going further down the road of oppression and isolation. The governments and companies – particularly from France and China – which are supporting the Gabonese president have a choice of their own: Is the friendship with the African people which they have expressed at many occasions limited to further investments in a corrupt regime? Or will they support the courageous leaders of a people which is struggling for justice and good governance?

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. His blog, Wet, Wild and Wonky, appears at