/ 12 December 2008

A worm of doubt in ‘Eden’

If God were to come to earth again, he would choose to be born in Gabon, said the celebrated Gabonese traditional guitar player Akué Obiang.

Born where? No, I don’t mean Gaborone, and it’s not an island in the Caribbean. It is ”Earth’s Last Eden”. At least, it is so for the producers of Survivor, who chose our small West Central African country this year to host the reality show’s 17th season.

It is easy to see why the Survivor team fell in love with Gabon. Premiered in September, Survivor: Gabon takes place in the Wongua-Wengué Presidential Reserve, the home of lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, antelope, buffalo and the famous Gabonese grey parrot. Its coasts offer a picturesque landscape of natural palm trees, white sand and unforgettable tropical sunsets.

But for the 1,5-million of us who live in this former French colony, Survivor offers material for self-reflection that might be far from the producers’ intentions.

For a start, some government officials are seriously concerned that the TV show might draw international attention to the country’s 40 years of governance malpractice, corruption and nepotism.

President Omar Bongo Ondimba has been in power since 1967 — making him Africa’s longest serving head of state — and he has often claimed more than 85% of the vote, creating suspicions about the validity of electoral processes and of the democratic culture in general in the country.

Despite this, Bongo — now probably in his last term — is far from the country’s worst governance problem. In fact, many have praised him for having managed to keep peace for more than 40 years in a country in which a minority ethnic group rules over more than 45 others – including the majority group, the Fang.

His recent appointment of a ”government of mission”, introducing drastic reforms in the administration of state affairs and a clampdown on corrupt Cabinet members, has demonstrated Bongo’s determination to expel corruption and nepotism from government institutions.

He has also kept an eye on the resources that, for Survivor, make Gabon an Eden. In 2002 he started moving the country away from its extreme dependency on oil: it was high time, he said, for the country’s revenues to be ”based on enjoying, and not extracting [its] national resources”.

Bongo’s shift towards ecotourism as the next major source of revenue has created 13 national parks covering more than 11% of the country’s natural fauna and flora — the second-largest percentage of protected land in the world after Costa Rica. And the country has already started to receive tremendous support for its new green policies through the United States-led Congo Basin Forest Partnership — a US$53-million initiative aimed at supporting investment in and protecting the natural resources of six Central African countries.

But real governance problems remain. First, there are Gabon’s cliental networks with its former colonial master, France, and the difficulty of breaking away from these, given the vested interests of both Gabonese and French officials.

Second, many former close allies of the president stand to lose a lot from Bongo’s moves against corruption and nepotism and are prepared to protect those interests by any means. And finally, most of the intellectuals who have left the country have no plans to return, depleting it of its potentially most important asset in the reform process.

This final point is to me, as a Gabonese citizen, the most worrisome of all. An incredible number of Gabonese engineers, medical doctors, economists, political analysts, sociologists and others are permanently established elsewhere. Even in South Africa — which is far from the favourite destination of Gabon’s intellectuals — there are more than 900 Gabonese nationals. Although this is a general problem for the continent, it is a huge one for a country with a population of only 1,5-million.

As for the publicity generated by Survivor, some are worried that it might in fact accentuate the already negative image that the West has of Africa.

Maelle Kiki, a Gabonese student doing her master’s in environmental studies at the University of Pretoria, says: ”The fact that the series is filmed in the country’s wilderness and most remote areas will paint it as a savage location — rural, poor, with no trace of civilisation, let alone development.”

And the show will hardly benefit the country’s population, adds Eva Arissani, a Gabonese translator and interpreter living in Pretoria. She points out that the filming did not require the production team to invest in community development projects and the publicity around it could in fact complicate the government’s efforts to preserve the environment.

The mere fact that Survivor is making both Gabonese and other people reflect on these issues is in itself positive for a country that was virtually unknown to the rest of the world. Intentionally or unintentionally, the TV show has become a powerful agent of sensitisation on critical domestic issues and will hopefully reignite the nationalist flame of the Gabonese diaspora scattered around the world and motivate their desire to go back home and contribute to the development of their nation.

Romeo Sinclair Nkoulou Ella was born in Gabon, educated in France and is now in South Africa studying for his master’s in international relations