Friday, February 20, 2015


The BBC offers its own encyclopaedia of countries of the world, usually both informative and objective -  a consequence of its being a public service subsidised by the tax-payer and not a privately-owned station steered by the agenda of the proprietor. The requirement is neutrality, and it is sometimes amusing to witness the strains behind the neutrality. This, for example, is the opening of the BBC Profile on Gabon:

“Gabon is one of West Africa's more stable countries. Between independence from France in 1960 and 2009, Gabon had just two presidents. The late president Omar Bongo was in power for over four decades.”

Two questions meld into one answer. How does a country in the permanent war zone of West Africa manage to be “stable”? How does a President manage to remain President for forty years? And this in a land where more than forty different ethnic groups make up the population, each with its own language (most of them of Bantu origin, which suggests that the ancient Gabonese were not indigenous but came up from the south as recently as two thousand years ago; the three most used languages are Mbere, Sira and Fang.)

Part of the answer is oil, which has brought significant affluence, though the fluctuations in the opinion polls also meld into the fluctuations in the price of oil, as well as the number of French troops stationed in the country. The BBC profile also fails to point out (except in small print below an incidental photograph) that the third President, the one who followed the forty-year President, was the son of that same forty-year President, and his victory in the 2009 election was generally dismissed as fraudulent - Andre Mba Obame's opposition National Union almost certainly won by a wide margin, but Bongo junior banned them, and Obame (no connection with any American President; the similarity of names is mere coincidence) took refuge in the UN compound in Libreville. A nice little family empire then is Gabon. The French are currently investigating Bongo junior for fraud in relation to some very expensive personal assets that he has in France. Bongo, like his father, is a late convert to Islam; which makes him stand out in a country whose predominant and official religion is still Christianity. State control of the media, including harassment and imprisonment, makes internal opposition and criticism difficult. Given that Bongo junior was born in 1959, we can take it for granted that a second consecutive forty-year presidency is highly likely; and yes, he has a son. Was it Gabon that Prince Philip was thinking of when he made his infamous faux pas about Bongo Bongo land? 

Its full name, incidentally, is The Gabonese Republic; its capital is Libreville, which is the same as Freetown in neighbouring Sierra Leone, just in French, which is the official language, despite the more than forty ethnic groups who have been indigenous for rather longer than the French colonists.

Alongside the multiple languages, there is also the continuation of another ancient tradition, the making of musical instruments, deeply connected with an equally ancient religion: the balafon, a type of xylophone that appears to be constructed, at least in part, out of footballs; the mougongo, which is a single-stringed bow played with the mouth; and then all manner of harps, drums, rattles and bells which are used to evoke different spirits in different rites. Not only musical instruments, but some of the finest masks and head-sculptures of any country in Africa, save only, perhaps, the Nok people of the Jos Plateau in Nigeria.

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