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A multi-billion dollar iron ore deal involving lifetime dictators and a system of power through patronage makes for a toxic mix that is bad for the people of Gabon, writes Khadija Sharife.

Gabon’s Ba’aka pygmy population may soon be saying au revoir to smoked fish and nihao to tofu, if the $3.5 billion Belinga iron-ore mining deal, awarded to a Chinese consortium in 2006, goes off without a hitch. The ore, billed as one of the world’s last remaining major untapped deposits, was first discovered in 1885 in a remote forested region located in the Ogooue-Ivindo province, and is estimated to hold one billion tons of ore with iron content of 64 per cent.

According to the deal previously struck by Gabon’s former lifetime dictator - and Africa’s longest standing president, Omar Bongo, - China received a 25 year tax holiday, despite profits projected within the eight years and 90 per cent of the profits thereafter, as well as environmental and other para-fiscal exemptions, such as significant control over national infrastructure.[1]

Except that Gabon has little or no infrastructure - just 10 per cent of the roads are paved and an estimated 70 per cent of the population lives below the poverty belt. Political and civil rights are limited to laminated constitutions, and economic, social and cultural rights, such as state services ranging from healthcare to waste sanitation, are unheard of.

But it would be wrong to conclude that Gabon’s development policy has failed: over 120 French multinationals in addition to Gabon’s venal political elite take development very personally indeed, collaborating on the kind of corporate-state partnerships glimpsed in the Elf Affair.

Though Gabon scores in the top 33 per cent of countries with high ranking per capita GDP ($14,000) - averaging four times that of Sub-Saharan Africa - Gabon’s political elite lord over the country’s wealth as they do the artificially manufactured poverty. And just in case the population rebels, France’s strong Marine Infantry Battalion, based in the capital Libreville, will swiftly intervene, via France’s ‘Africa’ policy of Francafrique. Gabon, renowned as the focal point of Francafrique, composed of secretive defense agreements, multinationals, and handpicked black governors, has existed in a state of forced peace since decolonisation.[2]

Despite the Elysee’s internal recommendations in a June 2008 defense policy paper advising the closure of France’s military unit based in Libreville, French President Sarkozy has yet to do so.[3]

‘The French protect our system against internal and external threats. In exchange, we support their policies in Africa and elsewhere,’ revealed Gabon’s presidential advisor.[4]

Yet, despite continuing the tradition of power through patronage, the country’s new ‘electoral’ dictator - Ali Ben Bongo Jr. - has signaled a shift in the country’s allegiance, shifting away from the West, toward the East. Bongo Jr’s success was the product of ‘locked down’ cities, and widespread harassment and violence targeting opposition parties, civil society, as well as the already oppressed media, such as L’Union, whose editor Albert Yangari was arrested before being transported to the army’s intelligence headquarters.[5] None of this will come as a surprise to Gabon’s citizens in a country where public security is the mandate of the army, and the president has the power to veto any legislation at will.[6]

Tellingly, Bongo Jr’s choice of personal assistant happens to be Chinese, a trend proliferating throughout the continent, which has received over $29.3 billion since 2002 through development projects geared at the exploitation of finite resources, financed by the state-owned Export-Import Bank of China (China Exim). And this is where China gets really smart: instead of establishing donor-relationships with cash-strapped corrupt African states, China - itself an emerging nation all too aware of socio-economic challenges - collateralises finite natural capital in exchange for development and revenue. This barter system has not only redefined Africa’s ‘risk’ profile - leading to the World Bank’s support of China Exim-led investments - but additionally generates a positive perception disconnected from that of the ‘western colonialists’.

The deal could not come at a better time: presently oil accounts for 80 per cent of export-earnings, but production has sharply declined, standing at 270,000 barrels per day (bpd), down from 351,890 barrels in 1998. Paradoxically, though the country remains one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s top five oil producers, Gabon holds just two billion barrels in dwindling reserves - unlike Nigeria’s 36 billion.[7]

Belinga’s iron-ore project, wholly financed by the state-owned Export-Import Bank of China (China Exim), includes the $790 million Belinga mining facility; two hydro-electric dams designed to electrify the mine (Grand Poubara and Kongou Falls, the latter with a price tag of $754 million); and the 560 km railway and planned deep-water port at Santa Clara engineered to transport resources from north-east Gabon to the Atlantic and then Beijing. The first shipments are scheduled to leave for China in 2011, with an estimated 30 million tons extracted each year.[8]

But profits from finite resources are largely derived from taxes - including mineral tax (royalties), and corporate tax, via region-specific resources. Meanwhile, the proposed 26,850 jobs appear unlikely to materialise as China’s leitmotif is generally to export Chinese labour, save that of mining. Transmission lines, supplying power to end destinations, often amount to half the project’s costs, bypassing populations in favour of mining facilities.

The proposed Kongou Dam, situated in the Invindo National Park - Gabon’s share of the Central African rainforest, inhabited by unique and endangered species such as the forest elephant - jeopardises the ‘ecological commons’, primarily used by indigenous people for survival and income. Long before environmental impact assessments (EIAs) were conducted, China began paving the 42 km road to Kongou Falls, facilitating poaching, wildlife trafficking and the logging of one of the world’s last remaining ancient rainforests and carbon sinks absorbing 20 per cent minimum of emissions annually. The letter of agreement was signed by Gabon’s Mines Minister Richard Onouviet.

What does Gabon and the world stand to lose?

The subsidy, according to 40 years of research conducted in Gabon by fellows from the University of Leeds, is economically valued at £13 billion each year. Globally, the Central African rainforest is second only to the Amazon. Ironically, the loans violate China Exim’s own social and environmental guidelines -article six and 12 - referring to social, ecological, employment, security, health, migrant and land acquisition.

Thanks to a network of local civil society groups, headed by Brainforest, a Gabon-based NGO environmental organisation, China Exim appears to have postponed financing until China National Machinery and Equipment Import and Export Corporation (CEMEC), is investigated for alleged ecological violations. Brainforest’s efforts have resulted in concessions initially marked at 5,000 square kilometers reduced to the actual size required: 600 square kilometers.

But Belinga remains the only hope for the export earnings required by Bongo and Co., as well as resource-hungry China.

‘Whatever happens and whatever anyone says, Belinga will go ahead,’ stated Omar Bongo in 2007.[8] Bongo Sr’s extraordinary ability to undermine and ‘purchase’ opposition parties has rendered Gabon a nation of imprisoned citizens, lucubrating the fiction of ‘flag independence’ – a situation benefitting the ‘khaki coup’ of Bongo Jr. in the recent elections.

Yet Beijing’s footprint, if properly engaged, may just be the catalyst needed to inspire a movement toward liberation from internal and external colonialists, whatever the skin color.


* This article was first published in May 2010 in the Harvard World Poverty and Human Rights journal where the author is assistant editor.
* Khadija Sharife is the southern Africa correspondent for The Africa Report magazine and a visiting scholar at the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) based in South Africa.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[4] Ibid