Growing international support for Marc Ona

Elected in 2009, Gabonese president Ali Bongo has pledged to fight corruption.

Elected in 2009, Gabonese president Ali Bongo has pledged to fight corruption and protect the environment.


Gabon Review reports that a growing number of individuals and organizations are speaking out in support of Marc Ona Essangui and denouncing his March 29th conviction and sentencing on defamation charges. The Review cites excerpts from several letters addressed directly to Gabon’s president, Ali Bongo.

The Goldman Environmental Prize adds that, “The global network of Goldman Prize recipients has also taken up the call for justice for Ona. Over 50 past Goldman Prize recipients are currently working on a collective petition.”

In 2009 Ona received the Goldman Environmental Prize for his efforts to publicly expose the illegal agreements behind the Belinga mining project, a secretly negotiated $3.5 billion deal comprising a massive mining concession, a dam, railroads and a deep-water port facility. Ona’s current efforts to shine a light on Gabon’s palm oil deals are a continuation of his ongoing fight for transparency and government accountability.

In a recent message addressed to the Goldman Environmental Prize, Ona writes:

It’s important to know that my commitment is to stop the destruction of our forest and all biodiversity by Olam, a Singaporean company, to plant palm trees and rubber. The members of the executive [government] are [giving] land to Olam without taking care of the right[s] of populations. The deforestation caused by this activity [has] accelerated since 2009 when Ali Bongo, the new Gabonese President, [gave] all power to Olam to cut trees [and] to plant palm trees and rubber. The denunciation I made is about collusion between the new President, his cabinet and Olam. They make intimidation on the populations to accept all projects by Olam. It’s not normal. The corruption of the executive members [of government] is about influence they make to [pressure they put on] the rest of the people to accept Olam project. I am fighting again the situation and we need all the network of Goldman Prize to join us by denouncing Olam activities in Gabon and the collusion with the members of the executive power in Gabon.

Read more about the Olam deal from Rainforest Foundation here: Case study 3.2 Olam, Gabon

The Goldman Prize also reports that Ona is asking citizens to consider sending messages to their elected officials or directly to Ali Bongo, President of Gabon ( and to Liban Soleman, the Chief of Cabinet (

Greenpeace France asks, “who wants to silence the defenders of the forest?” and reminds readers that the strong-arm tactics of the Gabonese authorities are, unfortunately, typical across the region: “In November, it was Nasako Besingi, an opponent of the Herakles Farms project in Cameroon, whose arbitrary arrest we reported. And in July 2012, Greenpeace, along with Survie and other organizations, denounced Gabonese president Ali Bongo’s visit to France several weeks after Marc Ona and other activists were arrested during a peaceful demonstration.”

Read more about Nasako Besingi here: Land grabbing Looms — New Palm Oil Plantation Threatens Cameroon’s Rainforest

A coalition of human rights organizations in France have made a public statement denouncing Ona’s conviction, which they consider a political manipulation of the justice system and a serious attack on freedom of expression. The NGOs also underline Ona’s ongoing efforts to bring transparency to Gabon’s lucrative – and corrupt – oil industry. After many years of warnings, Gabon was definitively excluded from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in February. Gabon had signed up to be part of this voluntary initiative in 2004, but had never fulfilled the reporting requirements. For years the country was able to call itself an “EITI candidate country,” but that is no longer possible.

The Bongo family is also one of several African political leaders’ families being pursued in France in the “affaire des biens mal-acquis”  (case of ill-gotten gains).

Read more about the “biens mal-acquis” (in English) here: France impounds Africa autocrats’ ‘ill-gotten gains’

Read more about Gabon’s exclusion from EITI (in English) here:  OIL MONEY IN GABON AND SIERRA LEONE: FROM MIRAGE TO REALITY?

Ona’s recent conviction is the latest in a series of run-ins he and other civil society activists have had with Gabonese authorities.

Describing Ona as “a tireless voice protecting the forest and its people,” the Goldman Environmental Prize noted in 2009 that, “Ona faces considerable personal risks in campaigning for environmental and social issues. In January 2008, the minister of the interior suspended the activities of the NGO coalition that Ona coordinates on the grounds that, “local NGOs were interfering in politics.” After much outcry, the suspension was lifted. In March 2008, a break-in at the office of Brainforest resulted in the loss of sensitive information relating to the Belinga mine project. Ona and his family were recently evicted from their home, as the landlord felt the risks of having an activist on his property were too great. Three times during 2008 the federal police refused to let Ona travel out of the country, without explanation.

“In December 2008, Ona and several other civil society leaders were arrested and held without charge and without access to legal representation in deplorable conditions in a basement cell for five days. Ona was later transferred to prison and charged with possession of documents allegedly for dissemination and propaganda with intent to incite rebellion against the state authorities, a charge which he denies. After media reports about the unlawful arrest from outlets in Africa, the EU and the US, the government released Ona, though the charges have not yet been dropped.”

Ali Bongo, president of Gabon since 2009, has pledged to fight corruption and clean-up the Gabonese government. The government of Gabon vaunts the progress it has made in world press freedom rankings. But the violent suppression of democracy campaigners in 2011 and the ongoing legal troubles of Ona and other civil society activists suggest there’s still much progress to be made.

Gabonese activist Marc Ona Essangui sentenced for “defamation”

Marc Ona Essangui. Photo: Gabon Review

Marc Ona Essangui. Photo: Gabon Review


RFI reports today that Gabonese activist Marc Ona Essangui has been sentenced for defamation of Liban Souleymane, the president’s Chief of Cabinet.  Ona Essangui, who received a six-month suspended prison sentence and a 5 million CFA franc fine (US$ 10,000), immediately announced that he would appeal the decision. The case has created shock waves throughout Gabonese civil society where it is perceived as a direct attack on freedom of speech.

Ona Essangui, one of Gabon’s most respected civil society activists and 2009 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, has long been a champion for environmental and social justice in his country. Among other things, Ona Essangui has fought tirelessly for transparency in the extractive industries sector and is the Gabon coordinator for the transparency organization, Publish What You Pay. Interestingly, his run-in with Liban Souleymane concerns the palm oil sector, which is completely shrouded in secrecy. To date, transparency initiatives such as EITI are concerned primarily with the extractive industries.

The human rights defense organization, Front Line Defenders, writes that Ona Essangui was in court over allegations of defamation lodged against him by the Liban Souleymane, Chief of Cabinet of the President of the Republic of Gabon. Ona Essangui, Front Line Defenders writes, was accused of making defamatory statements during an October 2012 public event, “where he discussed the activities of Groupe Olam, a Singaporean agribusiness company that invests substantially in Gabon.

“The human rights defender is also accused of making defamatory statements during a televised debate organised by a local TV station, TELEAFRICA, on 9 November 2012.

“It is alleged that, during both events, Marc Ona Essangui claimed that the Chief of Cabinet of the President of the Republic of Gabon, together with the President, hold personal stakes in Groupe Olam’s ventures in Gabon. Marc Ona Essangui, as well as other members of civil society in Gabon, have publicly criticised Group Olam’s ventures for benefiting from land-grabbing practices and for contributing to environmental degradation in the country.

“Front Line Defenders expresses its concern at the defamation case lodged against Marc Ona Essangui and the summons to appear before the Court on 18 January. It believes this represents a new act of judicial harassment against him and an attempt to undermine his peaceful and legitimate advocacy work on environmental and land rights in Gabon.”

In a decidedly pro-government story in the online publication,, Ona Essangui is accused of having “no proof” to back up his allegations, making them “completely baseless.” In an industry with zero transparency, it’s ironic that a publication can be so confident in its defense of the “defamed” politician.

RFI reports that Ona Essangui stands by his statements and insists that if he had to do it all again, he wouldn’t change a thing.

Find more reporting (in French) on this case from Gabon Review: Le cas Marc Ona – Liban Soleiman (one of several stories on the case)

Read the case study on Olam in Gabon from the Rainforest Foundation (in English): Case Study 3.2: Olam, Gabon

Read pages 29-31 of the report (in French), Les populations gabonaises face a l’insecurite fonciere, from Brainforest, the NGO founded by Marc Ona Essangui. This report details the financial relationship between the Gabonese government and Olam.


Let’s talk about money

CDC oil palm plantation, Southwest Region, Cameroon

CDC oil palm plantation, Southwest Region, Cameroon


There’s a rush on for land in the Congo Basin and palm oil is one of the main drivers of this investment boom.

Palm oil producers talk about global demand for palm oil and feeding the planet, but they wouldn’t be jostling for acreage if the potential profits weren’t so high.

Palm oil, generating US$ 20 billion-a-year in revenues, is the world’s most productive and most lucrative edible oil crop. In Malaysia, for example, palm oil plantations yield an average of 3.5 to 5 metric tons of oil annually. The current market price is hovering close to US$ 800 per ton.

In Africa, a combination extremely cheap land, low wages and tax breaks for foreign investors make palm oil an investor’s dream.

Here’s Gabon’s Agriculture Minister, Julien Nkoghe Bekale, speaking to Ventures Africa on the sidelines of the November 2012 UK-Gabon Investment Forum: “We have a large amount of available land and an attractive environment for investment … What we’re aiming to do is create an attractive framework, whether it be legislative, regulatory or fiscal, for investment. For agricultural enterprises we’re going to have tax exemptions on VAT, on customs and even on companies … At the moment palm oil prices are good, so obviously we will seek to export it rather than focus on local consumption.”

But in their race to the bottom to make themselves “attractive” to foreign investors, what are African governments gaining? Land leased for next to nothing. Produce and profits leaving the country. Little or no tax revenue. It’s really as crazy as it sounds.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, was in Cameroon in July 2012. At a press conference at the end of his mission, de Schutter addressed the problem of land “giveaways.” He stressed that Cameroon desperately needs better contract negotiations, negotiators and transparency. De Schutter said land prices are far too low and that contracts must be indexed to the price of resources. The benefits of investment must be equal or greater than the impacts, he said, also calling on the country to tax foreign investment properly. Today is not the 1980s, de Schutter said. Cameroon is in a position of strength and needs to leverage this.

De Schutter is hardly alone in his assessment. Dr. Mthuli Ncube is the Chief Economist and Vice President of the African Development Bank and is obviously a champion of investment. But in his article, A Global Rush for Africa’s Land: Risks and Opportunities, Mthuli Ncube writes that, “below market level land fees have characterized most land deals in Africa,” seriously undermining their value for host countries.

He continues: “Recently documented cases indicate land fees have ranged between US$4.8 to US$7.1 per hectare in Sudan against US$300 per hectare in Peru. Details of large-scale land leases are often concealed especially in host countries with a poor record of transparency and accountability.  In the Democratic Republic of Congo, close to 50% of arable land is either leased to foreign companies or is under negotiation for leasing, without a clearly defined framework governing these transactions. Some of the land acquisitions are held for speculative purposes given the sketchy details of implied investments (after acquisition) and the low land fees, which make secondary land transfers very lucrative….

“Thus, to obtain value from recent surge in land acquisition, African governments need to undertake institutional reforms that foster accountability, proper valuation of land, and social and environmental sustainability of investments.”

Mthuli Ncube suggests land auction systems as one possible measure to increase investment value: Land fees in many African countries, for comparable grades of land, are significantly lower than other developing regions of the world. For instance, land lease per hectare in India’s Punjab Doaba region is estimated to be more than 50 times the average land lease in Africa. Land auctions serve the twin advantage of setting prices right and promoting transparency of land deals. Peru’s competitive land auction system is often cited as a global best practice in stipulating strong terms of ‘commitment of investment’. Thus, mechanisms that discourage speculative land acquisitions should be fostered in Africa’s land markets.”

Further information

Read the full report of the U.N. Special Rapporteur’s mission to Cameroon here.

Read more on the palm oil investment from the Financial Times here.

Read Dr. Mthuli Ncube’s full article here.