Leading Gabonese activists arrested over forum protest
Two leading Gabonese activists and some 40 others were arrested as they tried to hold a “Counter-Forum of Indignants” alongside a meeting on African development opening Friday in Libreville.
Marc Ona, an award-winning environmental activist, and Gregory Ngbwa Mintsa, spokesman of Gabon’s Indignants’ Front, were detained before their event could get under way.
Authorities said they were arrested because demonstrators failed to apply for a protest permit.
The three-day New York Forum Africa, to be attended by Gabonese President Ali Bongo, is dedicated to development issues across the continent and features senior business executives and politicians from Africa and beyond.
But local campaigners have dismissed it as a public relations exercise that does not address the real needs of Gabon.
All those arrested were released by the end of the day, said Georges Mpaga, a prominent activist. He said a new “counter-forum” would be held Saturday.
The interior ministry said in a statement that Ona was arrested after behaving violently and throwing stones at security officers, causing several injuries.
Ona, who uses a wheelchair after a childhood bout of polio, denied the claim.
“We didn’t ask for authorisation but we wrote a letter letting people know about the demonstration and asking for a police presence,” Ona said.
Earlier, Ona said that when he arrived at the venue for their event in a private college “the police asked me to identify myself and they arrested me.”
Ngbwa Mintsa slammed the forum as “a vast public-relations exercise while the social, economic and political situation of our country drifts backwards.”
Organisers expect about 1,000 participants from 50 countries to attend the New York Forum.
Ona, recipient of the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize, said he had received a letter informing him the counter-forum was banned, but decided “not to give in.”
“They were arrested because they wanted to hold a banned demonstration,” said interior ministry spokesman Jean-Eric Nziengui Mangala, without giving the exact number of arrests.
Fellow campaigner Georges Mpaga, who has frequently been arrested along with Ona, told AFP he and other activists planned to report to the police headquarters and hand themselves in.
“If they are arresting Marc Ona, then let them arrest everyone,” he said.
The ministry source said, “The indignants’ movement does not legally exist, it’s a group which formed only a few days ago, before the forum.
“There is freedom of expression in Gabon but they made no application to demonstrate… They’re just trying to make a noise.”
Ona won the Goldman Prize for his “efforts to publicly expose the unlawful agreements behind a huge mining project threatening the sensitive ecosystems of Gabon’s equatorial rainforests,” the organisation said on its website.
He also campaigns on disability rights issues and for greater Internet access in Africa.
Ngbwa Mintsa was detained with Ona for 13 days in 2009 under the regime of Ali Bongo’s father Omar.
Ona, Mpaga and Ngbwa Mintsa were accused in 2009 of exceeding their roles as members of civil society by then interior minister Andre Mba Obame, who has since joined the opposition.