Gabon opposition defies French Foreign Legion




Hugh Bond (Mark Huband) in Libreville

The Guardian, 28 May 1990

MILITARY rule was effectively in operation in Gabon’s second city, Port Gentil, yesterday as French army units tried to stop riots sparked off by the death of a key opposition leader.

Protests have continued throughout the country, despite the 1,000 Foreign Legion troops sent by France to help quell the unrest.

French and Gabonese troops, with armoured cars were yesterday guarding the French embassy and ambassador’s residence in the capital, Libreville.

Buildings near, the embassy were, gutted by fire in last week’s riots. French troops are also guarding the airforce station at Libreville airport.

Up to 1,800 French expatriates have been evacuated in a massive airlift by French troops. Libreville is now calm, but a French government spokesman said yesterday that the airlift would continue.

The oil centre of Port Gentil, 150 miles south of the capital, is now controlled by French troops, and on Saturday the city’s airport was closed to all civil air traffic.

France has extensive investments in Gabon. The oil company, Elf, controls up to 50 per cent of the country’s oil-drilling operations and employs nearly 1,000 people, including 200 expatriates.

More than 1,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Port Gentil on Saturday night, shouting abuse at President Omar Bongo and protesting about the unexplained death, last Wednesday, of the country’s, leading, opposition politician, Joseph Redjambe.

Riots were also reported in the town of Mouila, and in Lamberene rioters broke into the prison and freed all the prisoners. Shops were looted and vehicles destroyed throughout the town.

Violence flared last Wednesday after Redjambe, leader of the Gabonese Progressive Party, was found dead in Port Gentil. The funeral, which was to be held yesterday, is now planned for today, although it is not expected to take place unless Port Gentil is once again in government hands.

In February, President Bongo was forced to accept a multiparty state after 22 years of one-party rule by the Democratic Party. The outbreak of rioting presents the first real challenge to the reform process.

In February, the official press announced that reforms in eastern Europe would not alter the one-party system in Gabon. However, within a few weeks, striking, workers had forced President Bongo to dissolve the Democratic Party arid establish the Social Democratic Rally, a broadly based party, as the first stage to political pluralism. Opposition parties have been registered and elections are due in August.

The French government has been hinting at the need for an end to one-party rule in Africa. President Bongo’s conversion to multi-party democracy was the first in French-speaking West Africa.

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