Marc Ona Essangui is from Gabon — a West African country with lots of oil, about a million and a half people, and just two presidents since independence from France in 1960. He’s the local head of the Publish What You Pay coalition, an NGO operating in 70 countries “that helps citizens of resource-rich developing countries hold their governments accountable for the management of revenues from the oil, gas and mining industries.”
Gabonese authorities last year stopped Ona Essangui, 45, from leaving the country on four separate occasions. In June he was prevented from traveling to a conference in New York of Revenue Watch Institute. A spokesperson from Gabon’s Ministry of the Interior, Maryse Issembet Me, reportedly said leaders of NGOs are in the pay of Europeans and Americans. In an AFP story, she was quoted as saying, “NGOs get up to whatever they want. They are at the mercy of and act for the Europeans and the Americans . . . The decision of the interior ministry was perfectly normal.”
In December last year, Ona Essangui and a co-worker, along with a civil servant and two journalists, were arrested and held for about ten days. He was charged with “possession of a document for dissemination for the purpose of propaganda” and with having “oral or written propaganda for incitement of rebellion against state authorities.”
The document in question was an open letter to President Omar Bongo Ondimba that accused his government of mismanagement and corruption. The letter asked why Gabon, with its vast natural resources, doesn’t enjoy a standard of prosperity and development equivalent to the Gulf countries in the Middle East.
Ona Essangui, who has been in a wheelchair since contracting polio when he was six, faces a jail term of up to five years and a fine of around $500.
Now, however, he’s suing the government in a court in Libreville for damages resulting from his travel ban. His lawyer says the claim of about $103,000 is a matter of “enforcing respect for human rights . . . and fundamental freedoms,” according to AFP.
Gabon ranked 96th on the 2008 Corruption Perception Index, tied with Benin, Guatemala, Jamaica, Kiribati and Mali. On the 2009 Index of Economic Freedom, where it ranks 118th, the commentary contains this warning: Gabon’s economy is driven by oil, forestry, and minerals. In 2006, oil accounted for over 50 percent of GDP, over 60 percent of government revenues, and over 80 percent of exports. Despite a relatively high average income from oil revenue, most people live in poverty. With oil production declining as fields become exhausted, Gabon needs to diversify its economy.