Thursday, June 3, 2010

Equatorial Africa, France and Oil

Gabon is the third largest provider of oil in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Libreville, the capital, was once the capital of the French Congo, which covered the entire mid section of the African continent 100 years ago.  Although now independent, Gabon still has a long-standing relationship with France.

Due to the oil, and every other natural resource that the country has been eating through (timber, gas, manganese, iron, gold, etc.), Gabon is considered one of the wealthiest countries on the continent.  The former President, Omar Bongo, who ruled the country for 42 years, was considered one of the wealthiest men in the world before his death in 2009.  Outside of 33+ luxury properties in France, and another $100+ million in banks in the US, his wealth has never really been accounted for.  He was a genius at lining pockets, and not just his own.  More than fifty political ministries were assigned to family and friends, as well as political opponents and rival ethnic tribes; obviously all became allies.  French oil and timber companies held preferential status to development claims, in return for political and military protection from France, as well as an outlay of cash.  This connection with French political power, essentially locked in his presidency for the long term.  A purported quote from the former President reads as follows: ”Gabon without France is like a car without a driver, France without Gabon is like a car without fuel.”

Gabon has one of the highest GDP’s on the continent, but since the wealth hasn’t been distributed, the majority of the country lives close to poverty.  This represents a double whammy for the population, since aide is severely restricted due to the high reported GDP.  Everything is available, but the cost of living is very high.

The country is thick with jungle.  So thick, that you can’t get from the capital to the major oil city, Port Gentil, by driving.  Roads, if they exist, are uniformly poor.  Instead or roads, they built a train that can take you from Libreville to Lope National Park, deep in the heart of the country, but this can take anywhere from 6-17 hours, depending on whether the train is running and on time.

Since I was living within the US Embassy community, I received a lot of access to interesting stories.  One of the son’s of the former President wanted us to build him a karate school, where he promised to instruct the youth.  This was his hobby; sounds like a good idea, why don’t you sell that $100k+ car you drive and build 4 schools?

Then there is the issue with police corruption and military rule.  Police will pull you over in the hopes of finding a reason to extort money…do you have a health insurance certificate for your car?  They don’t write tickets, they don’t even have tickets, they negotiate a price.  Military rule means roads will be closed on a whim, especially if a senior official may be leaving his office soon.

This may all sound bad, but not really.  Here is a major insight for fellow Americans:  Corruption is a fact of life, get over it.  It’s simply the way that business is done here, and if you think it doesn’t exist at home, you’re nuts.  At least here, it’s open and out front.  A friend from a local NGO was meeting a senior minister recently and offering access to an environmental training program, something to build a future on when the oil is depleted; the response she received…“how much will you pay us to take the training.”  It’s better to just accept it and move on.

There are a lot of great things about Gabon.  The new President, Ali Bongo, son of Omar Bongo, seems to be making a positive impression.  He cut the number of ministers in half and he has audited the civil service system.  Apparently, some 3000 people have been on the payroll well beyond their death.

He has also hired some young blood into his regime.  They may not have much experience, but on a continent where corruption is a way of life, lack of experience is a very good thing.

Tourism, particularly ecotourism is a major opportunity for Gabon.  The countryside is lush with bio-diversity and thick with wildlife.  The former President, Omar Bongo, declared 11% of the country a national parks system, protecting them from poaching, logging and oil exploration.  The coastline showcases some magnificent beaches untouched by human hands.  There aren’t many places on earth where you can go on safari to spend the morning on a white sand beach and then go looking for Forest elephants in the afternoon; all just two hours outside of the capital city.

There are a reported 20,000 lowland gorillas and 60,000 forest elephants in this tiny country on the equator.  The country is not very populated and it is relatively safe.  There is no civil unrest.  The average work ethic leaves a little less to be desired, but this can be a good thing.  Outside of a few select neighborhoods, people can’t really be bothered with committing crime. 

As you may surmise from previous posts, a visit to Gabon can be a very unique and rewarding experience.  It certainly can be considered uncharted territory.  If tourism is developed and managed properly, it promises to be that way for a long time to come.

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