Will Protests Prompt Obama to Focus on Economic Development and Human Rights in Africa?

Ali Bongo(Pictured: President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon.)

Shortly after this year got underway, two military leaders from Gabon visited air bases in Germany for a three day sojourn with some of their U.S. counterparts. The consultations were said to have focused on air base defense. Little was said publicly about the gathering or what prompted it. “The sorts of threats that exist in Gabon also exist here,” Colonel Jean Paulin Asseko Makoka , commander of Libreville Air Force Base, told the Armed Forces New Service (AFSN). “We have spent time discussing various threats, and we now have a better understanding of how the U.S. Air Force confronts these threats and the measures they take to mitigate them.”

Military forces in Gabon count less than 5,000. About 1,000 are in the country’s air force and they have at their disposal 5 attack helicopters and 13 ground attack planes. Gabon is also said to have a 1,800-member guard that provides security for country’s president.

According to AFNS, U.S. Master Sgt. Mike Keeler termed the visit the latest in a series of capacity-building engagements between the two countries, adding, “We are always eager to engage with our African partners and we are especially proud when we can bring them here and show them the kind of quality people we have standing watch over our forces and resources.”

The trip serves to highlight the increasing efforts by the U.S. to forge close links with African military leadership. What happened shortly after it ended speaks volumes about the risks to such relationships and the challenges facing the Obama Administration as it seeks to increase its presence on the continent.

Just as the Egyptian military delegation in Washington at the end of January cut short its stay and returned to a country in open rebellion, the Gabonese Air Force commanders returned home to a land seething in anger that exploded in a bloody fashion a few weeks later. Protesters soon took to the streets with a litany of complaints much like those heard across North Africa and elsewhere in recent weeks. In a demonstration in Meyo-Kyé, a small city in northern Gabon, a banner read: “In Tunisia, Ben Ali left. In Gabon, Ali Ben [president Bongo] out.”

“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,” Ethan Zuckerman wrote on his blog February 9. “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.”

Since the uprising began in Tunisia the outpouring of rage has almost always been described as something happening in “the Arab world.” However, in the weeks that followed rebellious manifestations showed up in other parts of Africa as well as in non-Arab Iran and Central Asia. Actually, one might say the most common link in the events has been the oil related wealth of the nations involved.

Oil accounts for nearly half of Gabon’s government budget, 43 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), and 81 percent of its exports. Some experts say Gabon will run out of oil in a couple of decades. Central Africa has acquired significant strategic importance because of its richness in petroleum and other natural resources.

The insurgents who took to the streets in Gabon were protesting a 2009 election they said was stolen by Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba. Interestingly enough, the election was prompted by the death of Al Bongo’s father Omar Bongo, who had run the country for nearly 50 years. A major complaint that had drawn masses into the streets of Egypt was the intent of President Hosni Mubarak to be succeeded by the younger of his two sons, Gamal Sayed Mubarak. A large banner carried aloof by the Gabon demonstrators read: “Le Gabon n’est pas une monarchie.”

In one of the few major media reports on the situation in Gabon, Christian Science Monitor correspondent, Drew Hinshaw, wrote February 12, “The protests that are reshaping the Arab world weren’t supposed to spread south to sub-Saharan Africa. But for weeks, while scenes of Egyptians overtaking their capital have mesmerized global TV audiences — and brought the world’s most recognized names in TV news to Cairo — Gabonese protesters have been facing death and imprisonment in a series of anti-repression demonstrations consciously modeled off the Tunisian example.

“The former French colony has been run for 34 years, with open support from France, by the Bongo family — first by Omar Bongo, and then by his son, Ali. In the family’s first act, Bongo Sr. ran up a rap sheet with Amnesty International that includes political murders and tortures of opposition leaders. The family managed to survive the winds of democratization that swept Africa in the early 1990s, before Bongo Sr. died in 2009, passing power to his son, Ali.”

“In the meantime, the family has channeled at least $100 million of state money into US banks alone, according to an investigation by the US senate,” Hinshaw wrote. “To make a point, Bongo Jr.’s wife was at one point renting a $25,000 a month house from the rapper then known as Puff Daddy.

“Critics say the Bongos got away with these sort of antics, which have cost so many autocrats their Western backing because of one thing only: Oil. The country used to pump 370,000 barrels a day of the stuff, but finds its reserves running drier by the week. No matter. The damage has already been done. Petrol has made this corner of the continent an African banana republic — except that commercial farmers no longer bother to grow bananas in what would be great soil for the crop, thanks the limits of an oil-inflated currency…”

Ali-Ben Bongo Ondimba is said to have spent $136 million on a 48,000 square foot, 14-bedroom mansion with seven parking spaces, a tennis court and a heated swimming pool on an acre of land in the heart of Paris.

Although it is one of Africa’s more prosperous countries the richest 20 percent of the population receive over 90 percent of the income while about a third of all Gabonese live in poverty. Average income is $2 a day. The jobless rate stands at 21 percent.

Sometime around New Year’s Day while the Obama family was on holiday in Hawaii, the Associated Press was informed that the President is — in AP’s words, “quietly but strategically stepping up his outreach to Africa, using this year to increase his engagement with a continent that is personally meaningful to him and important to U.S. interests.”And that Obama intended to focus in Africa “on good governance and supporting nations with strong democratic institutions.”

The report suggested the President will travel to Africa this year and deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said stops will reflect positive democratic models. “The official said the administration must persuade African nations that their interests are better served by aligning with the U.S.” said AP.

That was before Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Algeria. Now it appears the Administration has an additional challenge on the continent: getting its own act together in the face of the ongoing storm.

“Over the last decade we have invested heavily in toppling an oil rich Iraqi regime and committed the lives of our troops to nation building in Afghanistan, but there has been no real initiative to transform the human rights platform and economic empowerment of African people from the Sinai Peninsula to the Sub-Saharan desert,” MSNBC political commentator Edward Wyckoff Williams noted recently on the website Grio. “Why? It seems the crisis unfolding in Egypt and Tunisia will provide a teachable moment for Americans to become more politically aware of the true state of democracy (or lack thereof) in these African nations. American diplomacy can no longer hide behind pretense.”

“And herein lies the even greater conundrum: if Egypt is in crisis, then what does that say for the rest of Africa?” Williams wrote. “Will the events unfolding across this ancient land lead the Obama administration to implement real changes on how America approaches foreign policy in Africa? So much rhetoric and lip-service has been paid to the atrocities in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and the political and social unrest demonstrated in Rwanda and the Congo, but instead of real intervention, America has maintained a status quo of inaction.”

On December 3, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. viewed that Bahrain was “a model partner for not only the United States, but for so many countries that are looking to see the way that Bahrain decides about its future” and that she was “impressed by the commitment that the government has to the democratic path that Bahrain is walking on.” On January 25, while riot police were attacking protesters in Cairo, Clinton said the Mubarak government appeared to be stable and looking for ways to respond to the needs of Egyptians.

A year ago, Ali Bongo met privately in New York with Clinton who called him a “valued partner.” After the meeting she, said “I want to recognize President Bongo’s efforts to improve government efficiency, eliminate waste and fight corruption.”

According to Global Voices, two press releases issued by the Gabonese opposition accused the U.S. ambassador in Gabon Eric D. Benjaminson of keeping a guilty silence on violations by Ali Bongo and his regime against civil liberties.

Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black Commentator. He also serves on its editorial board.