HRF president Thor Halvorssen and HRF Chief Strategy officer Alex Gladstein on the Atlantic Council, which has chosen to give an award to the corrupt dictator of Gabon.
Gabon's president is an outlandishly corrupt autocrat who probably just stole an election. Why is the Atlantic Council toasting him at a black-tie gala?
Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba was scheduled to attend a swanky gala on Monday hosted by the Atlantic Council, a well-known Washington-based think tank, to accept an award for “his life of public service and efforts to improve the lives of the people of Gabon.” Unfortunately for the dictator, he was forced to cancel at the last moment because of mounting unrest in his country — the bloody fallout from a likely stolen election on Aug. 27. (International observers declared the vote fraudulent after the regime reported an improbable 95.5 percent victory for Bongo in his home province amid 99.98 percent voter turnout.)
Days of violent protests followed. At least 50 people were killed, and more than 1,000 were arrested by security forces, according to the opposition. Gabon remains under a 12-hour-a-day curfew, but the Atlantic Council has not officially rescinded the award, which it previously bestowed on the likes of Robert De Niro and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. In a letter to Human Rights Foundation, Atlantic Council President Frederick Kempe said his organization respects Bongo’s “decision to forgo receiving his Global Citizen Award this year due to the overriding priorities he has in his country.”
Yet it’s not clear how Bongo was ever considered a worthy candidate for the award in the first place. The notoriously corrupt leader has ruled Gabon since 2009, when he succeeded his father, Omar Bongo Ondimba, in a fraudulent election. (The Bongo family has exerted almost complete control over Gabonese politics, business, and civil society since 1967.) The country scores the lowest possible rating on Freedom House’s civil and political rights indices, and anti-government protestors are often met with violence or even killed.
The Bongo regime has an even worse record when it comes to corruption. The president and his family treat the national treasury like a private bank account, appropriating hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds for personal use, according to U.S. and French investigators. The government is built on what Gabonese prosecutors have described as a “mafia-like” network of fake civil servants who receive salaries despite not having official jobs. The result is that even with immense oil wealth — per capita income in Gabon is four times that of most sub-Saharan African countries — a third of the population lives below the poverty line and unemployment exceeds 20 percent.
Meanwhile, Bongo and his family own more than three dozen vacation homes abroad — some worth as much as 100 million euros — and boast a fleet of more than 100 luxury cars, including Ferraris, Bentleys, and customized Rolls-Royces. Their embezzlement ring, which has been extensively documented by the French government, extends to at least 70 bank accounts, yachts, an enormous fine art collection, and even a Boeing 777.
By recognizing him with a Global Citizen Award, the Atlantic Council is helping Bongo shed his image as an outrageously corrupt autocrat. The democratically elected leaders of Japan and Italy, Shinzo Abe and Matteo Renzi, respectively, will receive their awards on Monday as scheduled at a gala at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Had Bongo not been busy putting down a protest movement opposed to his rule, he would have been able to present himself as a similarly legitimate leader. And since the Atlantic Council hasn’t revoked the award, he may still be able to do so at a later date.
The Atlantic Council has long trumpeted its objectivity and independence, but feting Bongo is just the latest in a series of troubling developments at the think tank that raise questions about its commitment to transparency and ability to keep business interests separate from its research and policy operations. Gabon is not the only dictatorship the Atlantic Council has cozied up to: The Kingdom of Bahrain is listed on the organization’s website as a six-figure donor, and it has received financial support from the governments of Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, and Kazakhstan. Alexander Mirtchev, one of the directors of Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth fund, sits on the executive committee of the Atlantic Council’s board of directors and is listed as a six-figure donor.
The Atlantic Council claims to retain “intellectual independence” over its programs, but it’s difficult to explain the organization’s assessment of certain countries without taking into account their financial contributions. In 2012, for instance, the think tank hosted an event entirely dedicated to Kazakhstan, where speaker after speaker lauded the government’s foreign and economic policies while providing only tepid criticism of the country’s deteriorating human rights situation. “There’s a lot to praise in Kazakhstan," gushed Lorne Craner, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, adding that the country made “great strides in the field of human rights.” Larry Napper, the former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, praised Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s talent for building personal relationships with American leaders and reminisced on his sauna and vodka hospitality. Martha Brill Olcott, then a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, another Washington-based think tank, echoed this sentiment, exalting Nazarbayev’s “enormous diplomatic talents and personal charm.”
No one mentioned the fact that Nazarbayev is a ruthless tyrant who has enriched himself and his family, set himself up as president for life, and persecuted all who oppose him. The subject of political prisoners was completely ignored, presumably for fear of alienating one of the Atlantic Council’s top donors.
The think tank’s treatment of Gabon raises similar concerns. J. Peter Pham, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, is frequently quoted on Gabon in the media but has avoided criticizing Bongo. Most recently, Pham attacked Bongo’s political rival, former African Union chief Jean Ping, referring to his insistence that the Aug. 27 election was rigged as a “very dangerous game.” Earlier this year, Pham praised Bongo’s military reforms in an interview with Foreign Policy. In a more recent interview with the news site Ozy, he defended Bongo and belittled the opposition. A review of Pham’s comments and reporting reveals that he never criticizes the Gabonese regime’s human rights violations. Considering that Pham is quick to point out human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, his selective criticism seems less like dispassionate analysis and more like the words of a public relations gun for hire.
Because the Atlantic Council does not publicly disclose all of its funders, or the size and date of their donations, it is difficult to discern the precise nature of the organization’s relationship with the Bongo regime. Did the government of Gabon or someone acting on its behalf donate funds to the Atlantic Council? Do other Atlantic Council donors or partners stand to benefit from business dealings in Gabon? Until these questions are answered, the credibility of one of Washington’s most venerated think tanks will remain in question, and its Global Citizen Award will remain a joke.