Gabon’s president, Ali Bongo, intends to use his country’s two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council to highlight democratic reforms and his fight against corruption, which he terms a “cancer” sapping Africa’s strength and potential.
“Unfortunately, when it comes to the African body, we have many diseases — and corruption is one of them,” Bongo said in an interview after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton March 8 at the State Department.
“Corruption is a major problem that has to be stopped,” the African leader said, “which is why we are committed to fighting it. We know if we want to build a better future with responsible people, we especially need accountability, and this is what has been lacking.”
Gabon, with a population of fewer than 2 million, is largely dependent on the energy and extractive (mining and timber) sectors and is the fifth-largest supplier of oil in sub-Saharan Africa to the United States. In 2009, the non-government group Transparency International rated the nation 106 out of 180 countries in its annual corruption index, tied with Argentina, The Gambia, Niger and Benin.
After his election as president in August 2009 and before traveling to the United States, Bongo instituted a number of government reforms, including cutting Cabinet posts while restructuring the Treasury Department and launching an environmental effort called “Green Gabon.”
At the same time, he streamlined government by eliminating several agencies and bureaucracies that were hindering innovation and investment in Gabon. He has also threatened criminal penalties for persons attempting to bribe public officials, according to a recent press report.
Despite the challenges of corruption and reform, Bongo says he remains “optimistic about Africa’s future. We know we will make mistakes; we will struggle, and at times we will fall. But we will get up and move forward.”
In international affairs, Bongo said U.S.-Gabon relations are “very good,” adding, “We would like more progress on the economic front and are working on a trade agreement with the U.S. government.”
Acknowledging Gabon’s new responsibilities on the U.N. Security Council, Bongo said, “We are going to work very closely with the United States and all the permanent members of the Security Council to make sure that the world is a better place.” He had earlier addressed the Security Council, which Gabon chairs for the month of March.
Speaking to the press after her private meeting with the African leader, Secretary Clinton said, “I want to recognize President Bongo’s efforts to improve government efficiency, eliminate waste and fight corruption.
“We know, as the president knows, that economic progress depends on responsible governance that rejects corruption, enforces the rule of law, provides good stewardship of natural resources and delivers results that help to change people’s lives for the better.
“We stand ready to support Gabon as it further strengthens its democratic institutions and processes,” Clinton said.
The secretary added, “We are very supportive of Gabon’s efforts to diversify its economy, widen the circle of prosperity and create new opportunities for its people. Gabon is participating in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and taking other steps that will give confidence both to international investors but, more importantly, to the people of the country.’’
Speaking two days before the State Department issues its annual human rights report, Clinton said: “I also want to applaud the leadership that Gabon has shown in combating human trafficking. We have forged new partnerships with the Justice Department, and Gabon is moving toward ratifying the U.N. protocol. This is one more example of the reform-minded leadership that President Bongo is bringing to his country.”
“We’ve come a long way,” Bongo responded. “We’ve gone through a democratic process, and now we are moving forward. Good governance, [the] fight against corruption, diversity [in] our economy and our partners. This is what we’re doing.”