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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) and to Liban Soleman, the Chief of Cabinet (email@example.com).
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.