Ethan Zuckerman of My heart’s in Accra seems to have a knack for spotting the early moments of uprisings.
Just before the Tunisian revolution came to mainstream consciousness, he was one of the early bloggers to blog about young Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire in Tunisia when he wrote his blog post, What if Tunisia had a revolution and noone watched?
His recent blog post, Tunisia, Egypt, Gabon? Our responsibility to witness explores a rising popular revolt in Gabon. He laments the lack of media coverage of the revolt.
The West African nation of Gabon is experiencing a popular revolt against the rule of Ali Bongo Ondimba, son of long-time strongman Omar Bongo, president since October 2009.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.
The protests in Egypt and Tunisia have focused attention on autocratic governments with a history of corruption. In Egypt, the possibility of a Mubarak dynasty moving from Hosni to Gamal Mubarak helped stoke dissent. Gabonese are familiar with these types of problems. Omar Bongo is widely believed to have systematically looted the Gabonese treasury for his personal benefit. A suit brought in France by Transparency International against the governments of Gabon, Congo and Equatorial Guinea, accuses Bongo of depositing 8.5% of the national budget into a personal account at Citibank, siphoning over $100 million from the country between 1985 and 1997. When Bongo finally died in a Barcelona hospital in 2009, a controversial election ended up selecting Bongo’s son as a new leader over widespread accusations of voter fraud. And while Gabon, blessed with oil wealth, has a very high GDP per capita by sub-Saharan African standards, little of that wealth reaches the Gabonese people, one third of which live in poverty.
Little surprise, then, that Gabonese opposition supporters watched the events in Tunisia with a sense of hope and possibility.
It’s understandable that protests in Gabon haven’t captured the world’s attention. Gabon is a small nation, with a population of 1.5 million, and very few casual newspaper readers could place it accurately on a map. But this lack of attention has consequences. As protests unfolded in Libreville, opposition leader André Mba Obame – who likely won the 2009 election – and his leading advisors took sanctuary in the UNDP’s compound in the city, fearing arrest by Ali Bongo’s forces. According to recent Facebook posts, Obame and his advisors are facing steady pressure from UNDP to vacate the premises, and have already been ordered to surrender their mobile phones It’s unlikely the UNDP would risk expelling opposition leaders – who would likely be immediately arrested – if the world were watching. The world, however, is emphatically not watching. Search for “Gabon” on Google News, and the only recent coverage of protests you’ll find is from Global Voices, where Cameroonian author Julie Owono is following the story closely…
Read his full commentary here.