The Crimes of Bongo:
Apartheid and Terror in Africa’s Gardens of Eden
By Keith Harmon Snow
December 3, 2009
The June death of Gabon’s little ‘Big Man’–President Al Hajji Omar Bongo Ondimba–inspired praise worldwide. Cameroon’s President Biya saluted Bongo’s wisdom while French President Sarkozy called Bongo the “great and loyal friend of France.” Equatorial Guinea declared three days of national mourning and a ‘saddened’ U.S. President Obama lauded Bongo’s role in ‘shaping’ U.S.-Gabon relations for 41 years and his dedication to nature conservation and conflict resolution. “At a continental level,” bemoaned Zambia’s President Banda, “he was a pan-Africanist who tirelessly and tenaciously worked for the unity of the African continent.”
Behind the crocodile tears the news of Bongo’s death saw police and troop reinforcements hitting the streets of Gabon–France’s private Eden in Africa–as the old crocodile’s teethy security apparatus clicked into lockdown. Who are the white secret service agents behind Bongo (See the ancient photo of Gabon’s then new President, Albert-Bernard Bongo, circa 1965.) And then there’s Halliburton, nuclear weapons, secret societies… Who was Omar Bongo really?
In September 2003 the National Geographic unveiled the first in a series of feature stories about the world’s ‘least spoiled’ and ‘most threatened’ tropical forests. The ‘Saving Africa’s Eden’ series showcased elephants walking on white sand beaches, silverback gorillas in lush greenery, and hippos surfing in the salty sea. Omar Bongo–“a self-possessed man with a wide mustache and a warm smile”–was the African hero who created thirteen new national parks literally overnight.
The National Geographic series followed the adventures of the requisite modern day white-skinned Tarzan personified by American biologist J. Michael Fay–the ‘man who walked across the continent of Africa’–and photos showed Fay trekking through the equatorial jungle, crisscrossing savannahs and, later, surveying the wilderness with the charismatic black-skinned then U.S. Secretary of State–fresh out of a helicopter for a photo op–General Colin Powell.
It was all so captivating that I got the idea I had to go there. And so I did. Intrigued by the stories in National Geographic–which I recognized as the propaganda of the corporate empire–in late 2004 I took a ‘vacation’ from the beauty and bloodshed in the big Congo (Kinshasa) and hitchhiked across the (not-so) little Congo (Brazzaville) for a visit to ‘paradise’.
From Libreville I flew to Gamba, in the south of Gabon, took a boat to Sette Cama, and spent Christmas 2004 with my base camp on a bluff some 50 feet above the ocean in Loango National Park, the jewel of Gabon’s largest new protected area, the 1,132,000 hectare ‘Gamba Protected Area Complex.’ It is also the heartland of Shell, Halliburton and Schlumberger operations in Gabon.
“Blue seas, white sand, elephants, whales, sea turtles, monkeys, bush pigs, unbelievable scenery,” biologist Fay was quoted to say. “Gabon has it all. It has everything that everyone ever dreams about in paradise, as far as I’m concerned.”
J. Michael Fay was right, I said to myself, many times, surrounded by beauty and wildness, warm (90 degree) mists on the ocean and elephants on the beaches, soaring ospreys and chimpanzees falling out of trees, and the peace of the deserted shores of one of the most fantastic enduring wild places on earth.
But J. Michael Fay skipped the dirty details. Fay didn’t mention the poverty and suffering of black Gabonese villagers whose mud-hut and malaria suffering stands in sharp juxtaposition to the swimming pools and golf courses for highly paid white expatriates, sport fisherman or adventure tourists. Or that the Gamba Complex is a private zone controlled by Shell Oil, with checkpoints and guards, where pipelines, oil barges, well-heads and huge toxic flames burning off natural gas are more visible than the elephants. And the medical waste, dumped at sea, that litters the ‘pristine’ beach: one day I picked 48 syringes with 2 inch needles out of the white sand where I was walking barefoot. J. Michael Fay became a personal adviser to Omar Bongo, but he didn’t tell us about the terror Gabonese people live and die with.