Written by Nile Gardiner
The White House rolls out the red carpet for President Ali Bongo of Gabon
The White House is rolling out the red carpet today for President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon, whose penniless West African regime is notorious for its human rights abuses and widespread corruption (hat tip: this eye-opening report by ABC News). In yet another display of extraordinarily bad judgment, the Obama administration is extending the hand of friendship to another prominent tyrant, just two days after Washington sided with Hugo Chavez and various Latin American despots against Britain in a declaration over the Falkland Islands by the Organisation of American States (OAS).
Needless to say, Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney struggled to explain why President Bongo has been accorded the honour of a White House visit, admitting to ABC News that he has a “less than sterling record”. But, said Carney, it was still “very important” for Bongo to meet with the US president, because:
First of all, the president of Gabon is making reform efforts, which we support. Secondly … Gabon has been an important partner in some of the issues that are very important to American national security.
Gabon, with a population of only 1.5 million and a per capita income of just $1,438, has never been a key US “partner”, as Carney ludicrously spins it, and as for “reform efforts”, they are nowhere to be seen. But it does have a reputation for being a massive kleptocracy governed by a ruling family that has been in power for more than four decades, since 1967. According to UN consultant Jack Blum in an interview with ABC, the Bongo family and its cronies have “siphoned off 25 percent of the gross domestic product of the country… the people who are running the country are guilty of grand theft nation.”
Human Rights watchdog Freedom House classifies Gabon as “not free”, with a political rights score of 6 (on a scale of 1 at the top, and 7 at the bottom), and a civil liberties score of 5. As Freedom House points out, Gabon is a classic one-party state:
Gabon is not an electoral democracy. The 2009 presidential election was marred by irregularities, including allegations of vote rigging and intimidation of the press. The president is elected for seven-year terms, and a 2003 constitutional amendment removed the two-term limit imposed in 1991. The president has extensive powers, including the authority to appoint judges and dissolve the parliament.
And as the US State Department points out in its latest annual report, Gabon has an appalling human rights record:
The following human rights problems were reported: ritualistic killings; use of excessive force by police; harsh prison conditions and lengthy pretrial detention; an inefficient judiciary subject to government influence; restrictions on privacy and press; harassment and extortion of African immigrants and refugees; widespread government corruption; violence against women; societal discrimination against women, noncitizen Africans, Pygmies, and persons with HIV/AIDS; and trafficking in persons, particularly children.
Is this really the kind of “partner” the White House wants to cultivate? The decision by President Obama to host one of Africa’s worst despots is a sad reflection on the current US administration, whose dictator-friendly foreign policy, from Tehran to Khartoum to Libreville, is an embarrassment for the leader of the free world.
Nile Gardiner is a Washington-based foreign affairs analyst and political commentator. He appears frequently on American and British television and radio, including Fox News Channel, CNN, BBC, Sky News, and NPR.