Omar Bongo & Son: World-class conservationists

September 2003

How big a chunk? Ten percent of Gabon.
Conservation on such a massive scale is only possible because then-President Omar Bongo — and now his son — have ruled Gabon like iron-fisted kings for more than 40 years. But as the Egyptians have just reminded the world, people don’t like being ruled by malevolent monarchs.

Protesters in Gabon are challenging the rule of Ali Bongo Ondimba, son of long-time strongman Omar Bongo.

From Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of Global Voices & researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society:

It’s easy to understand why revolutions make for good television – they’re the most visible form of political change, and when they reshape governments previously considered unassailable, they’re a profoundly engaging and hopeful narrative. A revolution in Egypt is particularly compelling, as the nation is the most populous in the Arab world, and the cultural heart of the region.

Omar Bongo, Gabon's former President

But not all revolutions are blessed with this level of attention. The West African nation of Gabon is experiencing a popular revolt against the rule of Ali Bongo Ondimba, son of long-time strongman Omar Bongo, president since October 2009. Thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets of the nation’s capital, Libreville, on January 29th, and faced violent suppression from Ali Bongo’s troops. Protests have spread to other cities, and the crackdown against them has become increasingly fierce. Protests planned for February 5th and 8th were both suppressed with tear gas. At this point, it’s unclear whether protesters will be able to continue pressuring the government, or whether the crackdown has driven dissent underground.

Omar Bongo is no stranger to National Geographic, of course. In Befriending Thugs Who Love The Planet, we described how National Geographic worked closely with then-President (for Life) Bongo to establish 13 national parks — which represents ten percent of Gabon’s total land area. National Geographic then celebrated this profoundly anti-democratic “achievement” across virtually all the Society’s media platforms, including a three-part series in the Magazine (“the official journal of the National Geographic Society”).

President Omar Bongo and conservationist Mike Fay

Mike Fay, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, certainly inspired President Omar Bongo “to care about the planet.” Unfortunately, Bongo’s son seems to share his father’s contemptuous view of Gabon’s people:

January 29, 2011: Protesters clash with government troops in Libreville, Gabon

As we said earlier:

We believe that sustainable conservation grows from sustainable societies that embrace human rights, free speech, and democracy. We want the National Geographic Society to champion those values. And we don’t want our Society to look the other way when dictators profess their love of elephants — and then trample their own people.

Most of all, we wonder:

Why does our Society underwrite and celebrate this sort of “progress”?

Any thoughts, John?

photo credits
≡  Gabon protest by Wilsyanick Maniengui/AFP/Getty Images via Foreign Policy
President Bongo via The Daily Observer
President Bongo & Mike Fay, by Michael Nichols via
≡ Protest in Libreville  via Current Affairs


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