Full transcript from the June 6, 2011 Africa Center event “Africa in the 21st Century and the Next Chapter in U.S.-Africa Relations” featuring H.E. Ali Bongo Ondimba, President of the Gabonese Republic.
MONDAY, JUNE 6, 2011
PRESIDENT AND CEO,
THE ATLANTIC COUNCIL
J. PETER PHAM,
DIRECTOR, MICHAEL S. ANSARI AFRICA CENTER
THE ATLANTIC COUNCIL
ALI BONGO ONDIMBA,
REPUBLIC OF GABON
Federal News Service
FREDERICK KEMPE: It is an honor and pleasure to welcome His Excellency Ali Bongo Ondimba, president of the Gabonese Republic, to the Atlantic Council and to the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center. And Mr. President, it’s wonderful to have high-level members of your delegation – the budget minister, the foreign minister and other prominent individuals.
Mr. President, the Atlantic Council was founded 50 years ago, this year, at a crucial moment in the history of the United States and of the North Atlantic alliance. And it was founded by a distinguished group of individuals, including two former secretaries of state. The honorary directors were three former presidents. And it had the mission of actively educating the public about the need for engagement in international affairs, which wasn’t necessarily a universally held view throughout all of the United States in those days.
Today, the council continues to promote constructive U.S. leadership and engagement in international affairs based on the central role of the Atlantic community in meeting the international challenges of the 21st century. We work through a nonpartisan network and a bipartisan network of leaders to stimulate dialogue and discussion about critical global issues with a view to enriching the public debate and promoting consensus on appropriate responses in the administration, Congress, corporate and nonprofit sectors and the media in the United States and among leaders in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Americas.
We actually have noticed that the Atlantic Ocean washes up on, actually, four continents and not just a couple. Within this context, the Michael S. Ansari Center was founded two years ago through the visionary commitment of Mr. Michael Ansari – and we’re honored to have you here today with us, sir – with the mandate to help transform U.S. and European policy approaches to Africa, modernize U.S. and European African policy approaches and thinking about Africa by emphasizing the building of strong partnerships with African states, strengthening economic growth and prosperity on the continent and working with the public and private sectors in forging practical solutions to challenges and opportunities.
With the arrival of our impressive new director at the center, J. Peter Pham, we look forward to reinvigorating our engagement in Africa and extending our work. Thus, we are delighted to welcome you today as you begin an official visit to the United States that is truly historic. And I know that word is somewhat overused, but I think in this case, it’s true, as you will be the first head of state from sub-Saharan Africa to be officially hosted as a guest at Blair House, America’s state guest house during the presidency of the first president of the United States, who is, himself, a descendant of Africa.
Moreover, we are pleased to welcome you because of the important role that Gabon and you, yourself, personally have played and continued to play in the strategic reshaping of relations not only between the United States and Africa, but also Africa and Europe and Africa and the rest of the world. Since you completed your doctorate in law at the University of Paris Pantheon-Sorbonne, you have spent your entire career in public service, holding a number of positions, including minister of foreign affairs and cooperation, member of parliament and minister of national defense.
You were elected in multiparty elections in August, 2009, following the death of your father, and you were inaugurated in October of that year. Since then, your agenda has focused on major economic and infrastructure projects, as well as administrative and political reforms with the goal of transforming Gabon into an emerging country. Last year, if I have my numbers correctly, you had $5 billion of direct investment – a huge success for a country of your size.
In this respect, very important has been the active diplomacy which you have engaged in, serving as a bridge between the various parts of Africa and between Africa, Europe and North America. You’ve truly been a trans-Atlanticist, as we would say here at the Atlantic Council, a fact that the presence of many in the audience today testifies to.
Thus, Mr. President, we look forward to hearing you on U.S.-African relations, the next chapter. Welcome to the podium. And after the president’s comments, Mr. Pham will moderate the discussion.
PRESIDENT ALI BONGO ONDIMBA: Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, let me begin by offering my congratulations to the Atlantic Council on achieving 50 years of strong and significant contribution to the debate on U.S. foreign policy issues. I would also like to thank the president of the council, Mr. Frederick Kempe, for inviting me today.
Let me also extend my gratitude to the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center and its director, Dr. J. Peter Pham, for hosting this event. And among many friends who are here present today, I would like to single out General Ward, recently retired founding commander of the U.S. Africa Command, who did so much to build security partnerships with African countries like my own.
It is a real pleasure to be able to share a few thoughts on Africa in the 21st century, a topic that I believe is especially relevant in our world today. The mission of the Ansari Center – to build strong geopolitical partnerships with African states and strengthening business and prosperity on the continent – is one that resonates with my own vision for the future.
It is also closely aligned to the position taken by President Barack Obama in his historic address to the Ghanaian parliament in 2009. Africa is becoming ever more prominent in today’s world. Perhaps the most prominent situation is that of Libya, and as a member of the United Nations Security Council and current holder of the rotational presidency, Gabon has a key role to play.
The Arab spring, and in particular, the events in Libya, have demonstrated clearly the developmental challenge that faces Africa as a whole. The obvious failures of governments to deliver a true social contract for their people are the root cause of the events we have witnessed. Our people expect their leaders to govern with vision. We must have the vision to understand that democracy today is about more than just elections.
It is about building strong institutions and a pluralistic society. In Africa, where our democratic culture is still young, where our institutions and our constitutions are generally still the ones bequeathed to us by our colonizers, the full realization of this democratic ideal can be, sometimes, difficult. These difficulties, which all too often are prejudged from afar, need to be recognized and understood.
Do not misunderstand me: I am not asking you to close your eyes on un-democratic practices. We all know where they lead to. Rather, I am asking you to be conscious of our challenges. You should encourage and support those of us who genuinely respect democratic principles and rule of law. Respect for national institutions cannot be separated for the respect for individuals.
While we leaders are expected, as I said before, to govern with vision, our respect for institutions is the ultimate safeguard for stable and strong democracies and the ultimate security for our citizens to know that their collective will is taken into account. President Obama put this at the forefront of his approach to Africa when he said, in Ghana, that two of his key goals were to support strong and sustainable democratic governments and supporting development that provides opportunities for more people.
I believe that these opportunities for Africa, in the 21st century, are greater than they have been in the past. The responsibility to ensure that the position we find ourselves in results in maximum value for all lies with Africa’s leaders, and it is a responsibility that we must take very seriously. Let me give you a bit of an insight into why I say that the opportunity in Africa has never been greater than now.
I want to do this without throwing GDP growth figures at you, which may be – which may seem unusual, but once again, the Arab springs have clearly demonstrated that GDP growth, in itself, is insufficient for long-term development. The first example I would like to give is telecommunications. And why? Well, because the explosive growth in Africa in this sector over the last 15 years is a demonstration of interconnectedness, to which I have previously referred to.
Telecommunications is probably the most widely known success story on the African continent and, at the same time, directly contributed to the revolution in North Africa. Today, a rural farmer or herder can use his mobile phone to call ahead to market towns and find out where he can find the best price for his goods. He can leverage this information to bargain with buyers.
In the same way, social activists and communicate and coordinate dissent, circumventing the requirement for physical contact and making it difficult for governments who wish to quell opposition to do so. From 7.5 million phone users – you know, mobile phone users – in 1999, a recent report released at the end of the month of May suggests that Africa now has over 500 million mobile phone users.
The second example I want to give is, some could say, a more controversial one, but one that can form the bedrock for our development as a nation. I’m talking about natural resources. We are a continent that has historically failed to leverage the value of our resources. Those resources are more in demand today than ever before by a wider audience. Whether I look east, west, north, south, I see a growing clamor and interest in securing access to them.
As a president, it is my role to ensure that we take advantage of the position of relative strength that we find ourselves in. We must ensure that the deals we make for our resources maximize our ability to change our approach to development for the benefit of all Africans. We must also ensure that illicit trade, be it of diamonds, timber or fish extracted illegally or criminal trafficking of drugs or ivory are fought with determination.
I believe that there is a clear correlation between growth in these illegal activities and political instability. There is almost universal acceptance, today, that good regulation and economic liberalization will underpin growth and ensure that all benefit. Our acceptance of these norms in Africa has much less to do with ideology and much more to do with our desire to emulate the success of many East European, Asian and Latin American economies, which provide compelling motives, you know, to reform.
For this to happen, good governance is essential. This will only be achieved if leaders have the courage to take the tough decisions that are needed to implement the changes Africa so badly needs. Now, if we combine good governance and regulation, economic liberalization and positive aspirations, then we have the basic conditions to underpin massive growth, as was achieved in Asia in the 1960s.
These developments will underpin Africa’s development in the 21st century. These developments are already attracting the interest of investors from every corner of the globe. As was said, you know, by Mr. Kempe, last year in Gabon, we were able to attract more than $5 billion in new investment from foreign enterprises in manufacturing and infrastructure, rather than traditional oil and gas sector.
As the world is increasingly looking at Africa, at our resources, and as we are more empowered than ever to build our economies, it is important that African nations take their own destiny into their own hands. This is Africa’s great modern challenge. While the opportunities are there, we should be under no illusions that there aren’t still many difficulties.
But the situation has never looked as promising as it is today. If African leaders are genuine about building partnerships, we need to engage fully as partners. The best way to do so is to have a clear and coherent vision of the social and economic path we want to follow and the audacity to implement the changes that require it.
I would like to focus on Gabon for a moment to share with you how we are implementing, you know, this in my country. As you might know, Gabon has been blessed with abundant natural resources, including oil, which has been a true blessing for us as it enabled us to sustain our economic growth. But I also have to confess that we became slightly complacent due to oil.
We relied on it, you know, to sustain our GDP growth, finance our social system and give us a place at the table in international discussions. This complacency pervaded all of our society, slowly killing the drive to work hard, to innovate, to anticipate a future where oil would no longer be our key asset. In other words, we grew lazy.
This observation was at the heart of my reflection when I decided to run for the presidency. I wanted to challenge my fellow Gabonese, you know, to engage more actively into the future, to challenge my country to demonstrate that sustainable solutions are possible in the modern world. My participation in the international debate around, you know, environment, and notably in Copenhagen, confirmed my intuition to do so.
We needed to change our thinking radically. We needed to invent a new development model – one centered on both man and the environment. I then challenged my fellow people to strive for emerging country status for our country by 2020, capturing this concept in two words: in French – emerging Gabon.
Emerging Gabon is built on our greatest asset: our environment. More than 80 percent of our land is still covered by rich equatorial forest. National Geographic has christened Gabon “the last Eden.” Gabon is blessed by nature and we must act as responsible stewards whilst using these riches optimally for the development of the Gabonese people.
I am convinced that preserving the assets is the key to building a sustainable model of development. Just as Teddy Roosevelt said back in 1907, “The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem, it will avail us little to solve other problems.” The resources over which we fight in the future will no longer be oil that fuels our car or diamonds that adorn the fingers of millions or the coltan that powers our mobile phones.
The wars of the future will be fought over water, food and land. They will be fought because of the pressures exerted by a growing body of humanity on the natural world that sustains all of us. Peace, security and the environment are interdependent. We cannot work for lasting peace if we don’t confront the causes that we know will lead to wars in the future.
In 2009, the Africa progress panel estimated that climate change currently affecting Africa will lead to armed conflicts in 23 countries and political unrest in another 13. Protecting the environment is not a matter of scientific and economic agreement; it is about peace and ensuring that peace is possible. Preserving our natural environment is the surest and most effective means of preventing conflict in the future.
It is a clear means of minimizing the need for the kind of military intervention we have seen in North Africa. Industrial Gabon has to take this into account. Last year, we banned the export of raw timber, as we wanted to challenge the view of Africa and Gabon as a continent of cheap, raw resources. But this ban is not an end in itself. It aims to incentivize local exploitation of our wood.
With this ban, we created a special economic zone dedicated to the wood industry and very attractive to foreign investors. We went to encourage the processing of logs in Gabon, turning them into finished or semi-finished products before sending them overseas. This transforms an important sector of the economy from simple forestry to a multifaceted, you know, timber industry. Jobs in this sector will not be limited to lumberjacks, but will now include factory workers and skilled craftsmen.
Industrial Gabon will also be based on the exploitation of our oil, gas and as well as our mineral resources. Gabon has the second-largest reserve of manganese in the world and an important deposit of iron ore. With such reserves, we cannot limit our ambition to the simple export of raw metals. We are building all-encompassing infrastructure plans to make sure we, as a country, provide international partners who share our visions with all the power, roads, communications needed to transform our own resources, locally.
This said, the primary resources of any country is its human capital. In our – Gabon des Services– you know, it’s my strategy to develop and add value to the human capacity of Gabon. When there are not many of you, as is our case, your strength depends on good planning and ingenuity. That is why I am putting training and acquisition of new technologies at the heart of my strategy.
To illustrate this, we’re building a satellite base station linked to a center of excellence to collect and process satellite data across forested Africa. In addition, we are about to sign a cooperative agreement with the University of Oregon, a leader in research and teaching in sustainable development.
Hence, our vision is just not about economic emergence. It is more to do with a mental attitude – a confidence in ourselves and a desire for all of us to build a better future, to be part of the change we are implementing in Gabon, both in political circles and in civil society. My people elected me on the basis of my commitment to find solutions, on my promise to take the right decisions, however harsh and difficult they may be, to construct and emerging Gabon.
Gabon has the potential to pilot real innovation and redefine how governments and the private sector collaborate to create sustainable growth. We want to create the long-term potential for our people to innovate, to allow them to compete, not just with each other or with their neighbors on the African continent, but globally. I firmly believe that these ideas are the bedrock of a development model for the third millennium, a model that the entire world recognizes as necessary but is struggling to conceive and implement.
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests and friends, I hope that on this occasion, I’ve been able to contribute to the dialogue begun two years ago by President Obama on the topic of U.S. relations with Africa. The president affirmed that we must start from the simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans. The next chapter of African history has yet to be written.
We do not know precisely where the story will take us. We do know that the 21st century will bring more interconnectedness and with it, a greater sense of responsibility for ourselves to look both inwards, within Africa, and outward, you know, to the rest of the world. That responsibility includes speaking forthrightly and following through on the promises we – and by we, I mean leaders in government, business and civil society – the promises we make to our people, our constituents, our workers.
This opportunity accorded to me by the Atlantic Council is an example of Africa looking outward in friendship, and I hope equally, an opportunity for you who are listening to learn something new about Africa and, in particular, about Gabon. I hope, too, that my words today helped dispel some of the myths and stereotypes about Africa that are found too often in the news media or popular culture.
Africa of the 21st century is not the Africa of Joseph Conrad’s, you know, adventure novels; nor is it the Africa of the latter half of the 20th century that was a staging ground for Cold War rivalries. It is a whole new world in a new century that we embrace, along with our partners in North America, Europe and Asia. The countries of Africa, Gabon included, share the visions of Americans for security, sustainable democracy, economic development, improved public health and peace across the continent.
Africa will not be able to develop itself without peace. Stability of the continent and good governance should be considered as strategic resources for the continent. We must pursue these goals as partners. Each of us has ideas to contribute. Each of us has effort to expend. Each of us wants to see the other succeed. Each of us needs to see the other succeed. But are we heard?
Can we count on you, America, to treat us as equal partner with respect for our ideas and our specific challenges? Can we count on you not to amalgamate all of our 53 African countries under one generic label, relatively unknown, subject to prejudice and, let’s be frank, looked down upon? I sincerely hope we can. So let’s have the courage to do so. I was heartened by President Obama’s word in Accra two years ago that America has a responsibility to work with you as a partner.
Together, let us write the next chapter in Africa’s relations with Africa and the world’s relations with Africa, the continent that science tells us is the original home of humanity. I wish, again, to thank my hosts, President Kempe, Chairman Hagel, Dr. Pham and all of your colleagues at the Atlantic Council for providing this forum today.
I wish I could stay longer and speak to all of you individually, but as you know, Gabon serves this month as president of the United Nations Security Council and my responsibilities in this regard, you know, require me to return to New York City today.
Anyway, I hope that, on one day very soon, I can reciprocate the hospitality shown by the Atlantic Council of the United States by hosting a forum much like this on in Gabon. And that event, I invite all of you to come to visit us. In fact, visit us even without the excuse of a formal event. We will welcome you. Thank you for your attention. Thank you very much.
FREDERICK KEMPE: Thank you, Mr. President, for that speech and those words and the challenge to all of us to look at Africa in a new way. The president has graciously agreed to open this to questions and engage with the audience. So if you would raise your hand and then they’ll bring a mic to you, and if you would kindly identify yourself for the benefit – in the back there?
Q: Good morning, Mr. President. It’s certainly nice to see you. I’ve been to Gabon at least five times. I was there in ’95 leading an American delegation to monitor the elections, and I have a warm, you know, view of the country. My question – I’m glad you mentioned the issue of climate change because I would like to know, how has climate change affected Gabon? And do you feel that the United States and western countries are properly addressing climate change in Africa?
PRESIDENT ALI BONGO ONDIMBA: I would say that like most countries in the world, we are being affected by climate change. It’s one thing to recognize that these problems, you know, are very important, and we have done so. We have also realized that it was important to be part of a solution than of a problem, so we took important decisions in Gabon.
And when we went to Copenhagen, our message was, like, Gabon, as many countries in Africa, cannot be blamed, you know, for pollution, for having done so for a whole century, but we recognized that before, if yesterday we were ignorant of the danger of climate change, today, we all know. So let’s forget the past and let’s, you know, look forward and do something.
We are part of the Congo Basin, and as such, we wanted to make everybody recognize the importance, you know, of the rainforest countries. So alongside with Brazil, the Amazon Basin, and also southeast Asia, the Borneo-Mekong Basin, we want to tell the world that we are part of the solution. What we do in our country will affect, you know, the rest of the world.
It was not easy for us to decide that sitting on, as I mentioned – you know, the country is being covered by 80 percent of rainforest – it was not easy to decide and to convince people that, okay, we will go into preservation. We will not cut all the trees, though we need the resources, we need the money to develop our country. We are going to be wise about it.
Today, I can report that deforestation in Gabon is less than 1 percent, showing that we have been, you know, showing leadership and trying to also show an example. We had hoped, going into Copenhagen, that the whole world would recognize the difficult situation we find ourselves in, but it wasn’t the case. We are hoping that the next round in Durban in South Africa will bring the international community to recognize that there is, you know, a big problem ahead of us and that we have to respond collectively.
One country cannot do it alone. It is a collective effort. So it will be probably one of the topics on the agenda that I will have with, you know, President Obama. We feel strongly about that. As I said in my speech, if we, for instance, in the Congo Basin have a – we do not have the right policy and we do not manage, you know, the rainforest – we cut the trees – we will be responsible for a catastrophe in the future because right now, the desert is advancing almost a meter per year.
If we do not do what is right, you will see that speed, you know, accelerate and you will see big shortage of water. And you know water is life. Without water, no agriculture. People will go hungry. You already have that problem in some African countries. So being stewards, you know, of that rainforest is a big responsibility.
But we cannot share, you know, this burden alone so we are appealing to the whole community – international community – to say, well, let’s sit down and let’s come out with a legally binding, you know, treaty – one that would make sure that everybody will do what it requires to. So we are looking forward, you know, to this meeting in Durban in South Africa at the end of the year, hoping that they will come up, you know, with a better solution.
J. PETER PHAM: Over here, Tim? And if you would please identify yourself –
Q: Good morning, Mr. President. My name is Tim Docking. I represent IBM Corporation. Thank you for your presentation this morning. I thought you spoke eloquently about the importance of democracy and political freedom, about environmentalism, about skills training your country and how important it is for development of Gabon and the rest of the continent.
And one can imagine, given your speech, some of your talking points with President Obama. I wonder if you could express to us how those talking points might be different if you were addressing the leadership of China and, in doing so, reflect a little bit upon how you think the Chinese are operating on the continent and what advice you might have to them.
PRESIDENT ALI BONGO ONDIMBA: I try to have the same, you know, attitude in politics for our partners outside Gabon. One is that I want everybody, you know, to respect Gabon and what we do in Gabon, whether you are Chinese, Americans, you know, Brazilian, whatever. You have to respect what we are trying to do.
We have found that with the Chinese, it is important to develop, you know, friendship, as we have done in the past, and then we find it much easier to talk to them. We have a very frank, you know, relationship with the Chinese. We tell them – you know, we give them our message, we make sure that they hear us. And we can do that because we are friends. We are friends.
But what I tell our Chinese partners, pleasant or unpleasant, I keep that, you know, inner relationship with the Chinese government. What is important? What is important is that if you want someone to change, you know, what you consider as not right, I’m not sure that by – first, going public – it will make that person change.
So Gabon has a message for the whole world. Gabon insists – you know, part of being a country where the rule of law is important, good governance, fight against corruption – and today, we insist that we also want, though we invite investment in our country, we also want more share about, you know – because before, we could say that by being just an exporter of raw materials, we were just being like spectators.
We want to participate more. So we want to go into a win-win situation. And this message is the same, whether you are Chinese, French, American, whatever. So China is an important partner in Africa and each country has its own way to deal with the Chinese, you know, as we deal with the Germans or Americans or French. We do not see a problem with that.
J. PETER PHAM: Dr. Frazer?
Q: Thank you. It’s good to see you, Mr. President, and congratulations on taking a seat the Security Council. My question is, in that role, how do you see Gabon playing its hand – more from a national interest or as a representative of the African continent and as a representative of central Africa?
And I ask the question partly because of what you started with, which is Libya. And your countryman, Jean Ping was in town recently and he mentioned that, in fact, the African Union was not consulted until very late in the game when the decision was made by the Security Council to basically go to war with Libya, but yet, South Africa did sit on the Security Council.
And so I imagine that your foreign minister, your representative in New York will have to balance between being seen as representative and carrying the voice of Africa versus what your national interests may be, particularly vis-à-vis the United States and managing your bilateral relationship. And so I’m wondering, just how do you see that dynamic and the positions that you might take?
PRESIDENT ALI BONGO ONDIMBA: Well, you are personally, you know, experienced yourself so you know how difficult, you know, that is. And not long ago, you were in that situation. Of course, as representative of, you know, Africa on the Security Council, you have to find a balance between your own national interests and the interests of the continent. Three African countries on the Security Council right now – Nigeria, South Africa and Gabon – and three that have, you know, also passed the resolution – you know, have passed the resolution.
For us, what is important is that, as a member of AU, African Union, we have – when we created the African Union, we insisted, you know, that some elements were very important for us: human rights, good governance, democracy. No one – I mean, every country accepted that. It was not forced on anybody. And ever since, we keep repeating, you know, that we value good governance, you know, human rights, democracy. We do that.
Therefore, we thought it would be – we would have been in a very strange situation not to put that, you know, forward. When the situation of Libya came on the Security Council table, we already had dealt, you know, with the situation in Tunisia and Egypt. And in those two countries, you know, we saw what happened. The presidents, you know, stepped down.
The will of the people, trying to demonstrate peacefully – and in the end, the leadership understood that, well, rather than to go into more confrontation, civil war, it was best to step down to give the country, you know, a chance for peace, reconciliation and building, you know, stronger democracy. That wasn’t the case in Libya. People started demonstrating peacefully. The response from the Libyan government was, you know.
And the response of the Libyan government pushed, you know, those that were demonstrating peacefully, you know, to seek to protect themselves and then, you know, it escalated. We had hoped that by passing that resolution, the Libyan government would understand the seriousness of the matter. All of us experienced, you know, in international matters know very well that once a U.N. resolution is passed, it becomes dead serious. That was our hope.
But as we were debating in the Security Council, the Libyan government tried, you know, to solve the matter by more aggression against the people, saying, well, by the time they finish debating and by the time they vote on the resolution, we’re finished on the ground. That didn’t happen. But that strategy from, you know, the Libyan government was the fatal mistake of what happened after.
So of course, we know that – is it me? Oh. Although we know that today, there are some countries that are finding this situation difficult and that they have a reservation about, you know, what’s happening, we feel that we did the right thing. We do feel that we did the right thing and we feel that, in the future, people will recognize that we were right.
But we also have to add that there was some sort of resentment for Africans to hear. The North African problem was more like an Arab problem than an African one. Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are in Africa, after all – countries in Africa occupied by Arabs, okay, but in Africa.
And therefore, the African Union should have been, right from the beginning, you know, more involved. We heard that, you know, there were talks with, you know, the Arab League – seeking the approval of the Arab League, but it was more Africa that should have been involved. And let’s recall that on the Security Council, you have more African countries than Arab.
And it’s because of the support of African countries that the resolution passed. So it shows us that we have to, each of us, make efforts to work together and to make sure that, in the future, we do not have a situation when the whole continent feels that it was not, you know, involved right from the beginning.
But we have – (inaudible) – between the south African countries and those that were in – (inaudible) – to meet with the Security Council so that it would help, you know, bring people together. Okay.
J. PETER PHAM: Question there.
Q: Good day, Mr. President. I thank you very much for a very inspiring speech. My name is Rafael Zhansultanov and I am interning with the Atlantic Council. I have a question on aid effectiveness.
In your opinion as the president of your country, what is necessary to enhance the effectiveness of aid and investment effectiveness for Africa because there is often a complaint that, like, the well-developed countries give a lot of aid and invest in Africa, but sometimes, the investments – they go into the wrong hands. So in your opinion, how can good governance kind of increase the effectiveness of aid? Thank you.
PRESIDENT ALI BONGO ONDIMBA: Well, I don’t want to speak for others. You know, I speak for Gabon. We, in Gabon, have never been very much in favor of, you know, this aid policy, especially in the long term. We rather, you know, want to be partners. That’s why we favor investment and direct investment versus, you know, aid.
This aid policy has its limits. And as I said, you know, what happened to us regarding oil, I think for some other countries, you know, the same you could say about aid. Always waiting for others to come is not a good solution. You have to do something, you know, yourself – also have to do something important, you know.
So we want to be a good partner. And to demonstrate, you know, what I’m saying, just very simply, we do not want to extend the hand – no more. We want to shake the hand. This is our policy. And it’s one – we think it’s much better for the future and for our people.
J. PETER PHAM: The gentleman there, mic.
Q: Thank you, Mr. President. My name is Paul Ndiho, Voice of America. Mr. President, when you took power, you said one of the things you really wanted to do was to take Gabon into a different direction and one of the things that you came up with was this ambitious plan to develop an economic free zone.
I happened to be in your country last year and I visited that side. I was wondering if you can maybe bring us up to speed. How is that going? Because some of your critics say that it’s very ambitious and unrealistic. And second, I wanted to follow up on what Dr. Frasier said on Libya. Would you vote for a resolution calling for the overthrow of Gadhafi or you would vote with your fellow African brothers?
PRESIDENT ALI BONGO ONDIMBA: Well, last year, we launched the special economic zone not far from Libreville. And we understand critics, you know, saying that things are not going, you know, fast enough. You know, I am by nature also a very impatient man, though in this job, I have learned, you know, that one has to be patient.
But it is moving rather well. Today, we have companies coming from more than 10 countries that have already registered and over $920 million, you know. So it’s fair to say that next August, we’ll make inauguration ceremony of the special economic zone, and you’re invited to come and see, you know. So I’m pleased the way things are moving along.
As to your second question, I think our position is quite clear. And we do not need to take another vote. We say that one has to be part of a solution, not a problem. Now, today, is the brother leader Gadhafi a solution? Do you think he is a solution? So you have your answer, and I think you agree with me.
J. PETER PHAM: I think we can take one more question.
Q: Hi, Mr. President. My name is Ode Hungwaji.
PRESIDENT ALI BONGO ONDIMBA: Could you speak louder? I can’t hear you.
Q: Yes, my name is Ode Hungwaji. I would like to welcome you to Washington, D.C. and thank you for your message this morning. I have a question. It’s about diaspora – African diaspora in the U.S. I think we are part of the best minds – of African minds and we are working here in the U.S. and sometimes, we would like to serve in our countries. And I would like to ask you if, as an African leader or African Union, there’s any plan or any strategy to be able to bring the brains back home to serve and develop their countries and the continent?
PRESIDENT ALI BONGO ONDIMBA: In our case, we did not have a specific plan, you know, regarding our diaspora, but we thought that if we take, you know, the good decisions, then our diaspora will be interested to find out more about what we’re doing and to participate. And in our case, this is exactly what has happened.
Today, Gabonese are coming back, and we are pleased about that. But it is for us governments to do, you know, something for our people to come back. These people have left the country not because they really wanted to but because they didn’t find opportunities in their own country. Sometimes the problems comes from the relation between, you know, what they learn, what they graduate from and opportunities in country.
So we’re trying to really focus on that to make sure that, when they come out of, you know, school, come out of university, they can find something – you know, a job in their own country. And also, when we travel, we talk to them. We talk to our fellow compatriots and we find out, first, what they’re doing, what they would like to hear from their government and what they would like to see. So we take that into consideration, you know, for the policies that we want to implement.
Give better opportunities and you’ll see lots of people, even for a little less money but for good, you know, working conditions, they’ve gone but they will come back home. It’s because it’s very important. So I have been doing that for the last two years and I have been seeing progress, and we, at the palace are receiving, you know, lots of letters, you know, with the CVs and the – and we’re very pleased about that.
So in my staff, there are people assigned, you know, just for that – to find and then get in touch with companies and help some of the Gabonese to be able to find opportunities at home. And thank god, you know, so far, it’s working.
J. PETER PHAM: Mr. President, if I can avail myself of the host’s privilege to ask the last question –
PRESIDENT ALI BONGO ONDIMBA: That’s your privilege.
J. PETER PHAM: You spoke about reaching out, wanting an equal partnership. Concretely, what are some things that you are seeking from our allies, friends in Europe, certainly in the United States, concretely, perhaps in your meetings later this week with officials, that will help you with your agenda here and now and in the next year or two as you advance this great project of reform and this new chapter in Gabon and in Africa, moving forward?
PRESIDENT ALI BONGO ONDIMBA: As I have indicated, we find more people interested in Africa as the last frontier because of our resources, but we want things to be done differently. There was a question about China, and the Chinese have recognized that they need Africa, you know, to have access to the resources.
We’re telling our other friends that it’s not so much about criticizing the Chinese but responding – doing something, you know, also for us and helping us build a strong economy. Most of them recognize now, you know, that certain tools, such as good governance, fighting against corruption, respect of democracy, human rights – these are tools, also, for development. We all have decided to move on that path.
But what is, you know, respect of democracy if people have to go hungry? You’re not going to implement a strong democracy if you can’t feed your people. What is to be potentially, you know, wealthy – the wealth buried, you know, and not developed? So our message is come and help us build, you know, our countries and strong economies.
And the message is very simple: It’s a win-win situation because you come invest and make money while we develop ourselves in the way that we want to, making sure that we’re also going to get something. It’s different than the past. We’re not, you know, deaf. We hear that we have to deliver.
So that’s what we’re doing and the new generation is aware of these things. And we are delivering, you know, trying to – good governance, democracy – we’re doing that. But it has to be matched, you know, by strong support. And lately, as I’ve told the Europeans, we haven’t seen Americans. We have not seen them. And if I may say, some of our American, you know, friends, keep lecturing but just lecturing. And we say, we are past that. We are past that.
So don’t complain to see others coming and invest. People should not feel that we are stupid in telling us, oh, do not let the Chinese come in. They have a hidden agenda. So don’t you think we’re stupid. Others have done that before. So you think we haven’t learned? We have learned. But for some countries, what other choice do we have? So instead of lecturing, come: visit, stay, learn also, and not make judgments from afar.
And also recognize that, you know, Africa is not the United States of America. We are different, and really, what we want is not complicated. And we know that everybody wants to have access to our resources. It’s important for some countries to maintain, you know, economic growth rate. But if you see, globally, Africa’s growth rate has been, you know, constant over 5 percent, as a whole.
So it means that something is happening. We are really getting there. And we are going to get there. And this is very important to realize that if we don’t – if Africa, as a continent, fails – it’s going to affect many countries, starting first with Europe and then also others, then. And that’s not going to help. We understand it’s important for us to come here, deliver our message ourselves, you know, and say, well, come and visit and really be partners.
And if you have something to tell me, just tell me. But it’s not necessary to go on cameras and lecture me publicly. This is not going to work. Today, anyone can give, you know – can go about lecturing. So it’s much more, you know, really helping that is very important. We want to feed our people. We need to build, you know, strong economies.
And help us, you know, do that. That’s why I sit here and say, you know, in the case of Gabon, we were against aid. That’s not like, give me a fish a day; teach me how to fish so I can feed myself. That is more important for me.
So as a great country, America, we have found it difficult to accept that, you know, America is not as, you know, present as it should be in Africa – you know, investing more. We feel that we have a special, also, connection, bond with this country and we would like to see American companies come and invest and do business in Africa, where we’re saying now, you can do business in Africa and you can make money.
Africa of today is different from yesterday. We also are citizens of the world. We know what’s happening. And you’ve seen in northern Africa. It was a kind of wake-up call for rulers, you know, that had forgotten about that, no differently than what’s happening, you know, in the rest of the world.
J. PETER PHAM: Thank you very much, and please join me in thanking the president.