Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba -- son of one of Africa's longest-ruling strongmen, the late Omar Bongo, and leader of a country that often receives attention for allegations of corruption and human rights abuses -- was given the red-carpet treatment by the White House on Thursday, including a face-to-face meeting with President Barack Obama.
So why was Bongo treated likely foreign royalty? It probably didn't hurt that Gabon has become the third-largest producer of oil in sub-Saharan Africa. Or that Gabon, which is serving as this month's president of the U.N. Security Council, has agreed to vote in favor of a U.S.-backed European draft resolution condemning Syria's bloody crackdown.
"Gabon is holding the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council; it's an important position," Jay Carney, the White House spokesman told reporters. "Gabon has voted in ways that we consider very helpful on issues like Côte d'Ivoire, Libya, and Iran. It's been an important ally in our efforts in those countries through the United Nations.… So, yes, we do think it's appropriate for the president to meet with the leader of Gabon."
Following his father's death in 2009, Ali Bongo was elected president in a vote deemed "generally free and fair" despite some "irregularities and post-election violence," according to the State Department's 2010 Human Rights Report.
But the rest of what the State Department had to say about Gabon isn't very heartwarming. The report details "ritualistic killings; use of excessive force by police; harsh prison conditions and lengthy pretrial detention; an inefficient judiciary subject to government influence; restrictions on privacy and press; harassment and extortion of African immigrants and refugees; widespread government corruption; violence against women; societal discrimination against women, noncitizen Africans, Pygmies, and persons with HIV/AIDS; and trafficking in persons, particularly children."
Is this the sort of ally you want when you are seeking to excoriate Syria for cracking down on peaceful demonstrators?
Council diplomats say that on the Security Council, where countries with woeful rights records like China and Russia hold the power to kill off any pronouncement on Syria, you have no choice but to take whatever votes you can get. And besides, there have been some improvements in Gabon.
"Unlike in the previous year, there were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings" and "no reports of politically motivated disappearances," the State Department report stated. And though there are credible reports that the police continue to "beat" detainees to "extract confessions," there were no reports in 2010, as there was the previous year, "that security forces were responsible for injuring civilians while dispersing crowds."
Well, that's a start.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.