Sometimes ‘little’ people can make history too. When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia last December he started a blaze that created the Arab Spring. The same may happen with Roland Désiré Aba’a who is on hunger strike against “the French occupation” of his country.
The scene is Independence Square in Libreville. The white plastic lawn chairs are stacked for citizens who come by to show support and chat with the man lying on the ground. Civil society has provided tarps and large umbrellas for protection from the merciless sun and eventual downpours.
“He will win this battle,” says one man, “because we, the Gabonese people, are behind him.”
On July 14th, the French national holiday, Roland Désiré set up camp in the sun-baked city center with the firm intention to not eat nor drink until the 900 man French Army garrison leaves his country. Two days later, French Prime Minister François Fillon arrived in the Gabon to announce the French base will in fact be “reinforced” to form the “essential part” of France’s forces in the region.
Roland Désiré says the French soldiers “are here only to guarantee and secure French interests in exploiting our natural resources.” (For more on Gabon’s kleptocracy and France see my June 18, 2010 blog entry here: https://kazodaily.wordpress.com/2009/06/18/omar-bongo-the-french-monkey/)
Roland Désiré Aba’a, a father of two, is a 42 year-old engineer and member of the Gabonese Economic and Social Council. On July 19, army doctors began emergency intravenous feeding but Roland Désiré soon refused the treatment and resumed his hunger strike.
He has the support of 13 local NGOs and trade unions who submitted a letter to the French Premier during his visit calling on France to “no longer support this ignominious dictatorship”.
Roland Désiré has other demands. He wants the economic accords revised. “France is the master of all our surface and underground wealth,” he says. He also wants Gabon’s nearly two-and-a-half billion dollar foreign debt erased.
Gabon is an extremely wealthy country where the population lives in poverty while the Bongo Kleptocrats, who have run Gabon in French interests since independence, prosper. President Ali Bongo’s father, Omar, got most of his wealth by siphoning off oil wealth to the tune of one dollar per barrel from royalties paid by Elf-Aquitaine (now Total). It was a deal which worked out very well for the French. Loik Le Floch Prigeant, CEO of Elf-Aquitaine, 1989 to 1993, said in the 2010 French documentary ‘France-Afrique’ that the French are making a killing in Gabon. “Imagine … Gabonese oil is very cheap, about four or five dollars a barrel to extract, and then it is resold at eighty dollars a barrel.”
The French control a lion’s share of oil extraction in Gabon, probably the only sector where there is a little competition. “Over 60% of the foreign companies extracting in Gabon are French.” says Roland Désiré. “The whole timber and mineral industries are in French hands.”
And once again adding insult to injury, during his visit, the French Prime Minister pushed through two new contracts worth 73 million euros (105 million dollars) on the ever-ready-to-satisfy Ali Bongo, including a deal to the French Rougier and Cassagne for exclusive exploitation of 39 thousand hectares (96 thousand acres) of forest.
Given how often the French have intervened to keep their puppets in power in Gabon, it is easy to think Roland Désiré’s hunger strike is doomed to fail. The French Army easily ousted President Laurent Gbagbo in April to impose their ‘boy’ Alassane Ouattara. But we learned this year there is such a thing as the ‘Arab Street’ and it is powerful. It is quite possible we will discover an ‘African Street’ in the not too distant future.
Meanwhile, Roland Désiré Aba’a remains determined despite the danger. “If the loss of my life,” he says, “can allow us to expose to the international community that my country is confiscated, then I will be lowered into my tomb a happy man.”