Gabon's UNESCO Bailout: International Solidarity at What Price?

Ali Bongo, President of Gabon, has pledged US$2 million to UNESCO [fr]. Bongo made the offer in response to the announcement by the UN agency of an multi-donor emergency fund at the closing of its November 10 General Conference. The fund is designed to help compensate for the US$65 million shortfall left by the withdrawal of funding to UNESCO by the United States and Israel in protest at the granting of membership to Palestine.

This gesture from Gabon could be viewed as an act of solidarity with the UN agency, but activists in this oil-rich Central African nation are urging the public to look beyond the announcement.

Open letter to Irina Bokova

Image of a primary school in Mefoupe, Woleu Ntem, Northern Gabon. Creative Commons,

Image of a primary school in Mefoupe, Woleu Ntem, Northern Gabon. Creative Commons,

In an open letter to Irina Bokova, the Director General of the UNESCO, Ca suffit comme ça (Enough is Enough) [fr], Gabon's largest civil society organisation, explained why Gabon's donation should not be accepted [fr] :

En temps normal, une telle contribution à l’effort scientifique et culturel, ne poserait aucun problème mais, au regard de la paupérisation galopante dans notre pays actuellement, le Peuple Gabonais, poussé par l'instinct de survie, vient plutôt lancer un appel à votre organisme pour qu’il refuse le don de 2 millions de dollars US que voudrait lui offrir l’Etat gabonais.

In normal times, such a contribution to the scientific and cultural community would not pose any problem. However, for the sake of self-preservation and when considering  the soaring pauperisation of our country, we call on your organisation to refuse the US$2 million donation the Gabonese government would like to offer.

Ali Bongo, in an interview to the UN radio, justified his offer:

We have indicated our wish, like the one of many other countries, for the creation of a Palestinian State, at the side of the State of Israel. (…) The Palestinian people have the same right to its aspirations like the rest of us.

Gabon has recognised [fr] the existence of Palestine since 1989.

On an article published by Jeune Afrique, ‘le gabonais’ commented:

Contrairement aux uns, je pense que l'aide apporter à l'UNESCO est normale. car cette institution apporte beaucoup au monde et au peuple gabonais en particulier. l'Unesco soutient nos programmes et surtout ceux de la société civile au Gabon depuis ces dernier temps. laisser l'Unesco dans la boue faute d'avoir accueilli la Palestine est inadmissible. Merci Mr le Président d'avoir fait le geste.

Contrary to some, I think that the aid brought to UNESCO is normal. This institution brings a lot to the world and to the Gabonese people in particular. UNESCO supports our programs and specifically those of the civil society in Gabon. Leaving UNESCO in the mud because it has chosen to welcome Palestine is unacceptable. Thank you, Mr President for making this gesture.

In its letter to Irina Bokova, Ca suffit comme ça offers examples of alleged human rights violation by the incumbent regime:

Plusieurs illustrations peuvent être apportées à la corruption et à la privation de libertés fondamentales : plusieurs responsables de médias privés écrits et audiovisuels sont régulièrement emprisonnés et leurs médias illégalement suspendus, des leaders syndicaux de l'éducation nationale et d'autres fonctionnaires de ce secteur d'activité se sont vus suspendre leurs salaires pour avoir exercé leurs droits civiques ; des partis politiques dissouts (exemple de l’Union Nationale, principal parti de l’opposition gabonaise) (…)

There are many instances of corruption and denial of fundamental liberties: several owners of private print and broadcasting media are regularly detained and their media illegally suspended; union leaders of national education and other civil servants have seen their salaries suspended for exercising their civil rights; political parties have been dissolved (for instance the National Union, main Gabonese opposition party)….

Human rights violation caught on video?

Members of Ca suffit comme ça have publicised a video illustrating what they consider to be one of the Ali Bongo regime's violations, specifically regarding the right to receive a decent education. On November 14, YouTube user Miguel Yalban posted a video of an alleged attack by public forces in a high school of Port-Gentil, the country's second largest city and the center of Gabon's petroleum industry:

The female student in the video explains [fr]:

Students of Thuriaf Bantsantsa school have been on strike since Friday morning (November 11, 2011) (…). This morning we were at our school, we hadn't broken anything. Public forces arrived to ensure security, but instead of that, they came in and started beating up kids in uniform (…) One girl fell, I don't know if you've seen that (…) others were wounded, we took them to the hospital

Some netizens doubted the veracity of the event. One YouYube user mpsi91 commented [fr] :

Ohh qu'est ce qu'ils revendiquent même? Certains font la grève là juste pour ne pas avoir cours (à sourire au caméra pendant que les autres essayent d'expliquer le problème)!

Oh what are they even demanding? Some are on strike just to avoid going to classes (even laughing at the camera while others are trying to explain what the issue was!)

Elie Gbg Jeremie, a Facebook user who appears to be a student from the school, explains:

ns eleves de BANTSANTSA ns n avons pas accepter la decision du conseil de ministre d la semaine derniere qi a nommé notre proviseur a un autre poste (…). Notr Lycée a 1e tres mauvaise renomée dans la vill e de Pog M.Mihindou vient et veux chang cette image de nous,on ns l enleve. (…) cette scene fut vraiment ecoeurente lorsq ses gens ns ont prit d assaut.

We students of BANTSANTSA do not accept the decision of the Ministers’ council that appointed our principal to a different position (…). Our high school had a very bad reputation in the city, Mr. Mihindou came and wanted  to change the image of the school, and then he got taken from us. (…) this scene was really disgusting when those people attacked us.

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