UK delegation enjoys successful visit to Gabon prior to its Commonwealth admission
It was a first trip to Gabon for the whole of the delegation which included Lyn Brown MP (Labour’s Shadow Minister for Africa), Kate Osamor MP, Gagan Mohindra MP and myself. The trip was supported by Lucy Nash from the BGIPU, the Gabonese Ambassador to London and our non-resident Ambassador, Christian Dennys, who is based in Cameroon and also covers the slightly more tricky country of Equatorial Guinea. He joined us for the first few days when we were in Libreville, the overall trip being 7 days, 29 May to 3 June 2022, including travel.
The pre-trip briefing from our non-resident Ambassador was excellent. It highlighted three key issues which gave the visit and our meetings structure – Climate change, multilateral relations and the Commonwealth. When we were there, the Gabonese Government were in the process of applying to join the Commonwealth. On 12th June, the decision was taken by member states to accept Gabon at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kigali on 24th June. Togo will also be inducted at CHOGM and these entrants will broaden the Commonwealth family into areas previously associated with the Francophonie.
This report will tackle three areas and, before concluding, will mention some other issues we picked up on. Climate change is a massive issue in Gabon and Africa more widely. Gabon led at COP 26 for Africa and COP 27 is in Egypt. Sadly, with the deforestation of the Amazon, the rainforest in Gabon is likely to become the largest in the world. We met with the forestry department and visited the rainforest and mangroves. A fascinating visit, well worth the travel by boat, jeep and canoe – albeit, I could have coped without being chased by a hippo, Africa’s biggest killer of humans (note to update the BGIPU’s risk register on return!!) The forest is mapped and managed. Legislation to ban the raw export of wood has led to industry growth and increased jobs in Gabon. Some of the output was exceptional, and I have my eye on one of the tables for my kitchen. It is good to know where the wood comes from and that it is sustainable. The carbon capture and storage of the trees and peat is essential to maintain. There needs to be ways to pay Gabon for their contribution to the global good, to prevent a slip into the exploitation we have seen in places like the DRC. There is also a clear link between a pathway of forest exploitation, mineral exploitation, human exploitation and war and famine. Gabon is refusing to start the downward spiral.
We also raised issues of Gabon’s place in the world. As mentioned, they played a leadership role in COP 26, and are active in the African Union and regionally. They currently sit as part of the African 3 (A3) on the UN Security Council, alongside Ghana and Kenya. Gabon has taken a clear stance in supporting the people of Ukraine against Putin’s aggression and we wanted to thank them for this. They also work on a number of issues with partners beyond Africa in New York and Geneva.
There was much discussion of Gabon’s desire to join the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Secretariat had visited three times to do an assessment. The elections in Australia had held up some issues but, as mentioned above, we learned of their success in the weeks following the visit. We were interested to note a good level of English from many but certainly not all the people we met. The younger generation and school children were often much more fluent than our generation who were more comfortable conducting international discussion in French. This clearly will be something they will need to work on to integrate into a largely English-speaking Commonwealth.
We also noted the dominance of one party; parties were banned prior to 2001. The current President, Ali Bongo Ondimba, took over from his father who had served as President since 1967. The opposition was about 10% of parliament. Most opposition parliamentarians had been part of the ruling party and there was lots of post-election switching. Clearly, the multiparty democracy is different to that which we are used to but we found debate informed and engaging during our visits. It seems odd to think that the next visit may be a CPA not IPU one. All the delegation felt they were a strong candidate for membership but we had to remind them it was not our decision. If they join, this would build a case for the UK to open an Embassy in Libreville – we have one in every Commonwealth country in Africa with Eswatini and Lesotho’s re-opening recently.
During the trip, we also raised issues around human rights, worker’s rights and economic policy. We saw an impressive industrial park, the Nkok Gabon Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Tax incentives have encouraged foreign investment and 144 companies from 19 countries are currently operating on the site. SEZ includes an industrial, commercial and residential zone. We were told that the workers are paid a minimum wage but would have liked some more assurance that a structure to protect the employee’s rights was in place.
We were warmly welcomed and were happy to be appointed unofficial Ambassadors to Gabon. I recommend all to visit; it is a beautiful place, with warm people and, despite a small population, is taking a lead on the world stage, punching above its’ weight.