(CNSNews.com) – The White House justified President Obama’s decision Thursday to host in the Oval Office an African leader facing a low-level revolt at home and accused of serious corruption, on the basis of reforms he has introduced and his voting record at the United Nations.
The small Central African country of Gabon is one of the 10 non-permanent members of the Security Council and holds the council presidency this month.
Obama met with Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba and, according to a brief White House statement, “recognized Gabon’s leadership on Libya, Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire and other issues.”
The statement said Obama urged Bongo “to take bold steps to root out corruption and to reform the judiciary and other key institutions to ensure the protection of human rights, and he welcomed the reforms that Gabon has taken under President Bongo Ondimba to bring more transparency and accountability to government.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney fielded questions about the appropriateness of the visit and venue, given the corruption allegations leveled at Bongo and his late father, Omar Bongo, who was president for 42 years – for a time the world’s longest-ruling leader – until his death in 2009.
“I think that it’s a little naive to believe that the president of the United States should not meet with leaders who don’t meet all the standards that we would have for perfect governance, okay?” he replied.
“This is an important relationship. Gabon has made some very significant and courageous votes in the United Nations in support of objectives that the United States has, including dealing with Iran and Libya and Côte d’Ivoire, including with issues that have to do with human rights.”
Carney continued, “President Bongo has made a number of reforms in Gabon, and Gabon is playing an increasingly important role … as a regional and global leader.”
Election disputed, corruption alleged
Located on the west coast of Central Africa, oil-producing Gabon is around the size of Colorado and has a population of 1.5 million.
Despite the talk of reforms, since Ali Bongo took office in 2009 Gabon’s annual rating in the Freedom House scores for political rights and civil liberties has worsened rather than improved.
Every year since 1990, Freedom House has ranked Gabon as “partly free,” but in both its 2010 report (covering 2009) and its 2011 report (covering 2010), Gabon moved into the “not free” column.
Although Bongo’s election in 2009 was generally characterized as fair and free, opposition parties disputed the outcome, riots broke out and a recount was ordered, confirming his victory.
The dispute has persisted, however, and last January a lawmaker who came second in the poll, Andre Obame, proclaimed himself president and sought refuge at a U.N. facility in the capital, Libreville. Obame’s parliamentary immunity was recently lifted and he may face treason charges.
In its annual report on human rights, the State Department listed among human rights problems in Gabon in 2010 “ritualistic killings; use of excessive force by police; harsh prison conditions and lengthy pretrial detention; an inefficient judiciary subject to government influence; restrictions on privacy and press; harassment and extortion of African immigrants and refugees; widespread government corruption; violence against women; societal discrimination against women, noncitizen Africans, Pygmies, and persons with HIV/AIDS; and trafficking in persons, particularly children.”
On the other hand, the report noted that “[u]nlike in the previous year, there were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings,” and there were also “no reports of politically motivated disappearances.”
Gabon has long had a reputation for corruption, although a number of other African countries are considered even worse. Transparency International’s “Corruption Perceptions Index” for 2010, based on 13 independent surveys, placed Gabon at 110 out of 178 countries.
A February 2010 U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report entitled “Keeping Foreign Corruption out of the United States” said that Ali and Omar Bongo had both amassed “substantial wealth while in office, amid the extreme poverty of its citizens.”
Among other things, the report found that the wife of the current president had formed a U.S. trust in 2000 and used funds transferred into it “to support a lavish lifestyle and move money among a network of bank and securities accounts benefiting her and her husband.”
“Both men [the incumbent and his father] are notorious for accumulating massive wealth while in office in a country known for poverty,” Sen. Carl Levin said during a hearing on the report.
President Bush met with Omar Bongo in the Oval Office in May 2004.
Gabon at the UN
A review of Gabon’s votes in the three major U.N. forums – the Security Council, General Assembly and Human Rights Council – show a mixed record.
At the Security Council, Gabon voted with the U.S. on last year’s key Iran sanctions resolution (Turkey and Brazil voted against it; Lebanon abstained).
Gabon also voted with the U.S. position on seven resolutions relating to Cote d’Ivoire and three relating to Sudan (all passed unanimously, except for one Sudan resolution, in which China abstained).
And in the vote authorizing military intervention in Libya last March, Gabon again voted for the resolution, which passed 10-0, with five abstentions (China, Russia, Brazil, India and Germany).
The situation in the General Assembly is somewhat different.
Under U.S. law, the State Department reports to Congress on U.N. voting patterns, measuring how other member-states votes on “issues which directly affected United States interests and on which the United States lobbied extensively.”
In 2010, the department identified 13 such issues. They included resolutions relating to the embargo on Cuba, three dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nuclear and missile proliferation, the death penalty, the Durban racism process, “religious defamation” and human rights abuses in North Korea, Iran and Burma.
On those 13 key measures, Gabon’s voting coincided with the United States’ position 36 percent of the time.
Gabon opposed the U.S. position on Cuba, the Palestinian issue, “religious defamation,” Durban and the death penalty.
It voted with the U.S. position on nuclear and missile issues and North Korea, and it abstained when the Iran and Burma human rights resolutions were voted on.
When compared to the voting records of the nine other non-permanent Security Council members in 2010, Gabon came in around the middle: Uganda, Lebanon, Bosnia and Brazil voted with the U.S. position even less often than Gabon, while Nigeria, Turkey, Mexico, Austria and Japan voted with the U.S. position more often than Gabon did.
Gabon was a member of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council (HRC) from 2006 until earlier this year.
Various assessments of the HRC, carried out by U.N. Watch in 2007, by the Democracy Coalition Project in 2008-9, and by Human Rights Watch in 2010, did not give Gabon high marks.
In a U.N. Watch ranking on key HRC actions, where the best possible score was plus 20 and the worst was minus 20, Gabon scored minus 14.
The Human Rights Watch report put Gabon at the end of the spectrum of HRC members that were least supportive of resolutions targeting country-specific human rights situations.