Gabon’s Leader Gives Elephants Free Rein. Rural Voters Don’t Forget.


Dionne Searceyaug, The New York Times

Date Published


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KAZAMABIKA, Gabon — For months, Jacqueline Gnagne carefully tended the cassava, corn and peanuts she planted inside a national park. Rangers helped her string barbed wire to protect her crops. Just before harvest time, she even moved into a small cabin at the edge of the field so she could keep a 24-hour watch.

Every night she waited. At the first sound of breaking branches, she beat on a metal drum that echoed through the forest of Lopé National Park. It was no use. The elephants came anyway. A baby managed to squeeze in between the fence wires. Its mother followed, barreling through. They ate everything.

Furious, Ms. Gnagne, the chief of the village down the road, phoned government parks officials who protect the endangered elephants.

“Look at what your children have done,” Ms. Gnagne fumed.

In most countries, the exchanges would probably not have even registered as a blip on the presidential radar. But they caught the attention of Gabon’s president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, who has made protecting this central African nation’s wildlife and forests a centerpiece of his tenure.

Mr. Bongo, whose family has held Gabon’s presidency since the Lyndon B. Johnson era, has earned international praise for his commitment to conservation.

But as he faces re-election on Saturday, his efforts have earned him something else as well: resentment from many residents who complain that he worries too much about wild animals and not enough about them.

Some potential voters said they planned to sit out the vote in protest, repeating a common refrain that can be heard in the forests and on city streets alike: Let the elephants vote for him instead.

“Elephants can live everywhere; that’s not our problem here,” said Claude Somand-Mayila, who lives in a poor neighborhood in the capital, Libreville. “There are no jobs in this country. Zero, zero, zero. I’m looking for a change, but there is no change.”

Despite the many frustrations in this oil-rich nation with glaring inequalities between the wealthy and the poor, political analysts say Mr. Bongo is likely to win. The campaign of his chief rival — Jean Ping, the former African Union chairman and Gabon-born son of a Chinese businessman — has accused Mr. Bongo of being born in Nigeria, making him ineligible for office. Mr. Bongo has denied the claim.

Observers fear the vote’s outcome could prompt riots. In 2009, when Mr. Bongo won the election after the death of his father, Omar Bongo, violence broke out as protesters called the vote a fraud and the Bongo family rule an autocracy.

Trying to step out from the shadow of his father’s nearly 42-year rule, Mr. Bongo says he wants to win over the population on the basis of his own accomplishments. And in many areas of the heavily forested nation, elephants are standing in the way.

So this month, Mr. Bongo brought in electric fencing experts from Kenya to string wires to protect the crops of Ms. Gnagne’s tiny village, a pilot project that he says could be deployed in other villages inside the forest.

“We don’t want to leave anyone by the side of the road,” said Mr. Bongo in an interview at his seaside presidential palace in Libreville.

Many people already feel like he has.

Mr. Bongo’s conservation efforts are well known abroad. He banned commercial fishing off coastal waters to establish an enormous marine protected area. He expanded the number of rangers and other employees in the national parks, to 750 from 60, to fight illegal logging and poaching in some of the most pristine forests in the world. He is a regular at international climate and conservation conferences.

But the president’s passion for trees and animals has also flummoxed many residents in a nation that suffers from tremendous inequality.

In a neighborhood of the capital called Céi, abandoned, rusting cars seem to melt into dirt streets lined by apartment buildings with broken windows and crumbling balconies. A river of trash and sewage winds through the neighborhood. Not far away, government ministers cruise down a coastal highway in Mercedes SUVs.

A 2013 McKinsey report commissioned by the government of Gabon classified 30 percent of the Gabonese population as vulnerable, living on about $140 a month.

Mr. Bongo said he took the report to heart. In 2014, he said his government created $500 million in new health and education programs, including 40,000 scholarships, aimed at improving quality of life.

Mr. Bongo has tried to distance himself from the lavishness that was a hallmark of his father, whose tenure was best known for enriching himself and the loyal elite.

Last year, the younger Mr. Bongo sold off some of his inherited French real estate, pledging to give the proceeds to the people of Gabon. But skeptics noted the sale came as a judicial inquiry was underway into the Bongo family’s holdings and secret overseas bank accounts, accusing them of misusing public funds. The investigation is continuing.

Mr. Bongo promised to build a university with money from the real estate sale. He said construction on it and three other universities would start next year. A new mining school opened this summer.

Many of Mr. Bongo’s efforts have yet to trickle down to residents, particularly in Libreville, where dense treetops give way to flat tin roofs of ramshackle shacks that stretch across the horizon. Mr. Bongo is urging patience.

“The cities are where the poverty really mostly is,” Mr. Bongo said. “We have started programs to fight that.”

Mr. Bongo’s elephant fence project is a small piece of a sweeping plan he said he created to shift Gabon from its heavy reliance on oil revenues. Low prices have caused Gabon to fall behind in payments on government contracts. But even more worrisome, the country’s oil reserves are dwindling.

Mr. Bongo has banned the export of timber to encourage local processing, and, for the first time, the country has begun processing its own manganese. The export of all raw natural resources will be banned by 2020.

Oil now accounts for about 27 percent of gross domestic product, down from 40 to 50 percent in years past.

“Our economic model was too simplistic; it was based on exporting,” said Régis Immongault Tatagani, Gabon’s minister of the economy. “Our new model is based on transforming the resources in our country.”

Expanding agriculture is one central element. Most of Gabon’s tiny population of 1.7 million lives in a handful of crowded cities. Mr. Bongo wants to lure them back to the land.

A new cooperative program offers training, financing and several acres to anyone who will uproot themselves to work the land in rural areas. At least 13,000 people have enrolled, said Gagan Gupta, country director for Olam International, an agriculture company partnering with the government on the program.

But no one can farm successfully if the nation’s 40,000 forest elephants eat the harvest.

In Ms. Gnagne’s village, which was settled in the forest long before it became a national park, signs of elephant invasion on a recent morning were everywhere. Bushes were trampled. Heaps of dung were visible.

Nearby, workers were installing the 125-acre, solar-powered wire perimeter that packs enough voltage to scare off a two-and-a-half ton elephant.

“We could avoid importing $800 million dollars’ worth of food if we can get agriculture going,” said Lee White, Gabon’s director of national parks.

With the new fence, Mr. Bongo said he was trying to balance the needs of the population with his passion for conservation.

It is the same philosophy Mr. Bongo said he applied when creating a palm oil plantation, though those kinds of projects are often criticized by conservationists because the operations swallow trees and animal habitats.

Officials used new satellite technology to identify a site for the 250,000-acre operation that they said would do the least damage to biodiversity. The government said it expected the project to create 12,000 jobs.

Mr. Bongo is also hoping to lure investors to his new economic zone, where they can operate tax-free for 10 years. So far it has 91 companies, which employ about 1,000 Gabonese workers, said Jasveer Singh, chief executive of the zone.

On a recent afternoon, workers punched in at Gabon Wood Industries, a company with Malaysian investors that processes timber. All but 11 of 82 employees of the company are Gabonese.

“I’m voting for the president,” said Kombe Gustave, who was one of them. “He’s for all the people, for the Gabonese.”