Gabon: Poverty amid Plenty



Due to the global recession, the six-nation Central African Economic and Monetary Community — Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo Republic, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon — is anticipating economic expansion of just 2.8 percent in 2009, versus 4.4 percent last year. That’s not bad, considering Germany could contract by as much as 7 percent, and the U.S. by around 3 percent.

But the apparently positive figures are misleading. Even at the best of times, these countries — many of them former French colonies — suffer some of the worst rich-poor divides anywhere. Four-percent growth does not mean that everyday Gabonese, for example, are any better off than they were a year before. The region’s oil (pictured), gold and timber is making the tiny ruling class fabulously wealthy, and seeding resentment deep in the hearts of working people.

At the height of Gabon’s oil boom in 2006, 40 percent of the population was unemployed, and 70 percent lived below the poverty line. Those figures have not improved.

“The rampant poverty is set against a per-capita GDP more than three-times higher than the sub-Saharan average, a paradox that is not lost on politicians opposed to the country’s president, Omar Bongo, West Africa’s longest-serving head of state,” IRIN reported.

The French police found that Bongo and his family owned some 33 luxury properties in France, including a $24-million villa in Paris, according to AFP.

“Our leaders live in style, parading with cars and big villas while the country is left utterly helpless,” said Vincent Ndomba, who works at the Gabonese Treasury.

Last month Paris froze nine of Bongo’s French accounts, containing millions of dollars, over a legal dispute filed by a French citizen who says he had to pay hundreds of thousands of euros to have a relative freed from Gabonese jail.

In a couple weeks, the U.S. Navy amphibious ship Nashville will visit Gabon to deliver free training and humanitarian assistance, a service Bongo’s government requested, despite the country’s strong growth compare to the U.S. I’ll be joining Nashville in the capital of Libreville.

While Gabon remains fairly violence-free despite the country’s social ills, that’s not always the case in such troubled countries. In nearby Chad, for instance, the same economic disparities have fueled one of Africa’s most persistent civil wars.

(Photo: via Univ. of Oklahoma)