Let me begin by offering my congratulations to the Atlantic Council on achieving 50 years of strong and significant contributions to the debate on US foreign policy issues. I would like to thank Senator Chuck Hagel, the chairman of the Atlantic Council and Frederick Kempe, the Council’s president, 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. Among many friends who are present today, I would like to single out General William “Kip” 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 notable situation is that of Libya. In that, Gabon has a key role to play as a member (and current President) of the UN Security Council.
The events of earlier this year that have come to be called “The Arab Spring,” and in particular the conflict 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 much more than 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 colonisers, the full realisation of this democratic ideal can be difficult.
These difficulties, which all too often are pre-judged from afar, need to be recognised 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, our big democratic brother – notre grand frère -, to be conscious of our challenges. You should encourage and support those of us who genuinely respect democratic principals and the rule of law.
Respect for national institutions cannot be separated from the respect for individuals. While we leaders are expected to govern with vision, our respect for institutions is the ultimate safeguard for stable and strong democracies. Strong civil institutions also provide assurance for citizens to be secure in their persons, their property, their liberties, and the futures of their children and grandchildren.
President Obama 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 ever 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 for Africa has never been greater than now. I want to do this without throwing GDP growth figures at you, which may seem unusual, but the Arab Spring has clearly demonstrated that GDP growth in itself; is insufficient for long term development.
The first example I’d like to give is telecommunications. Why? Because the explosive growth in Africa in this sector over the past 15 years is a demonstration of the inter-connectedness to which I have previously referred. Telecommunications is probably the most widely known success story on the African continent and at the same time, directly contributed to the revolutions in North Africa.
Today, a rural farmer or herder can use his mobile telephone to call ahead to market towns and find out where the best price for his goods will be. He can leverage this information to bargain with buyers.
In the same way, social activists can communicate and co-ordinate dissent, circumventing the requirement for physical contact and making it difficult for government’s who wish to quell opposition to do so.
According to a recent report, the number of mobile phone users in Africa has grown from 7.5 million in 1999, to over 500 million mobile phone users today.
The second example I want to give is a more controversial one, but one that can form the bedrock for our development as a nation, 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 and by a wider audience. Whether I look East, West, South or North I see a growing clamour and interest in securing access to them.
It is my role to make sure 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 maximise 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.
For this to happen, good governance is essential, and 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 generate massive growth, as was achieved in Asia during the 1960s.
These developments will propel Africa’s development in the 21st century. Africa is already attracting the interests of investors from every corner of the globe. Last year in Gabon we were able to attract more than five billion dollars in new investments from foreign enterprises - in manufacturing and infrastructure, rather than in the traditional oil and gas sectors.
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 hold of their own destiny. This is Africa’s great modern challenge.
While the opportunities are there, we should be under no illusions that there are many difficulties. Still, the situation has never looked as promising as it is today.
If African leaders are genuine about building partnership, we need to engage fully as partners. The best way to do this is to have a clear and coherent vision of the socio-economic path we want to follow and the audacity to implement the changes that requires.
I would like to focus on Gabon for a while, to share with you how we are implementing a 21st century vision in my country. As you probably 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 have to confess that we became slightly complacent due to the oil: we relied on it to sustain our GDP growth, finance our social system, and give us a place at the table of international discussions. This complacency pervaded all of our society, slowly killing the drive to work hard, to innovate, and to anticipate a future where oil will no longer be our key asset.
When I decided to run for the Presidency, I chose to challenge my fellow Gabonese to engage more actively in their future; to challenge my country to demonstrate to the world that sustainable solutions to difficult problems are possible.
My participation in the international debate around environment, and notably in Copenhagen, confirmed my intuition that 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 challenged my fellow people to strive for emerging country status for our country by 2020, capturing this concept in two words: “Gabon Emergent” - Emerging Gabon. Emerging Gabon is built on our greatest asset: our environment. Eighty percent of our land is still covered by rich tropical 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 richness of nature 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 all others."
The resources over which we fight in the future will no longer be the oil that fuels our cars, or the diamonds that adorn the fingers of millions, or the coltan that powers our mobile phones. The wars of the future will be fought over basic things like 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 inter-dependent. We cannot work for lasting peace if we don't confront today, the causes that we know will lead to wars in the future.
In 2009, the Africa Progress Panel predicted 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. We want to work for a world in which those dire predictions do not come to pass.
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.
Gabon Industriel – “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 want to encourage the processing of logs in Gabon, turning them into finished and semi-finished products before selling them overseas.
This transforms an important sector of the economy from simple forestry to a multifaceted 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, our gas, 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 raw metal.
We are building all encompassing infrastructure plans to make sure we, as a country, provide international partners who share our vision with all the power, roads and communications needed to transform locally our own resources.
This said, the primary resource of any country is its human capital, the talents, skills, and energies of its people.
“Gabon des Services” - is 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.
This is why I am putting training and acquisition of new technologies at the heart of my strategy.
To illustrate this, we are 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 sustainable development.
Hence, our vision is not just about economic emergence. It has 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 civil society.
Gabonese voters elected me on the basis of my commitment to find solutions, on my promise to take the right decisions, however harsh and difficult they might be, to construct an Emerging Gabon.
Gabon has the potential to pilot real innovation and to re-define how governments and the private sector collaborate to create sustainable growth.
We want to create the long term potential for our people to innovate. This will encourage them to compete, not just with each other, or with their neighbours 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 recognises as necessary, but is struggling to conceive and implement.
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, visitors, and friends: I hope that, on this occasion, I have 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 Africa’s 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 inter-connectedness, and with it a greater sense of responsibility for ourselves to look both inward, within Africa, and outward, 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 me today 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 far too often in the news media and popular culture.
Africa of the 21st century is not the Africa of Joseph Conrad’s 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 and a new century that we embrace along with our partners in North America, Europe, and Asia.
The countries of Africa, Gabon included, share the desire 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 to be considered as strategic resources.
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 merging all of our 53 countries under one generic name that too often generates pity, snobbishness, and prejudice? Can we count on Americans to know that Africa is a continent, not a country? I sincerely hope we can. Let’s have the courage to do so.
I was heartened by President Obama’s words 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 the world and the world’s relations with Africa, the continent that science tells us is the original home of all of us.
I wish again to thank my hosts – President Kempe, Chairman Hagel, Dr. Pham, and all your colleagues at the Atlantic Council – for providing this forum today. I wish I could stay longer and speak to all of you in the audience individually, but, as you know, Gabon serves this month as president of the United Nations Security Council, and my responsibilities in that regard require my return to New York City.
I hope that, on some day very soon, I can reciprocate the hospitality shown by the Atlantic Council of the United States by hosting a forum much like this one in Gabon. In that event, I invite all of you to come to visit us. In fact, visit us even without the excuse of a formal event. “Gabon vert” – green Gabon – beckons to you.
Thank you for your time and attention. Thank you so much.