Boris Johnson welcomes President of Gabon in 2021
The surprising topic of their study? The Commonwealth – the organisation, headed by our Queen, of 54 countries, almost all former British colonies. These youngsters meet regularly to improve their English and when they are invited to share their favourite things about the UK, the buzz of excitement triples in volume. Clasping their Union Flags, they shout answers in quick succession.
“James Bond,” calls one young man to cheers. “The accent,” says another. And the answers keep flying, with particular reverence reserved for England’s national poet, William Shakespeare.
“We love how British and Anglophone culture is promoted in Gabon and that’s one of the reasons more people are learning the language,” says Pendi Nguele Wen Christ of The Link Association, whose organisation promotes English-speaking clubs to 1,000 young Gabonese.
“But there is also a growing desire to learn with everything that is happening.”
The “everything” to which he is referring is Gabon’s decision to join the Commonwealth, to be formally approved today, even though this is a former French colony and was never under British rule.
Gabon and French-speaking Togo will be admitted at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Prince Charles, representing the Queen, will be joined by Boris Johnson to welcome them.
FLYING THE FLAG: Students in Gabon’s capital Libreville enjoy English lessons and studies of Britain
BON VOYAGE!: French leader Emmanuel Macron faces growing resistance from former colonies in Africa
This flies in the face of recent claims that support for the Commonwealth is waning following difficult royal tours this year in former Caribbean colonies.
Gabon’s foreign minister Michael Moussa-Adamo is scathing about the critics. “They’re wrong,” he says simply.
“The Commonwealth is well, vibrant and has a bright future ahead of it.”
The official line is that France has accepted Gabon’s decision and the two countries remain on good terms.
“They know and understand that we don’t live in Francophonie, that we are just reaching out to a larger family,” Mr Moussa-Adamo says.
“It’s an addition for us, not a subtraction, so it’s a win-win for everyone.”
But in private, Gabonese politicians admit the move has caused much gnashing of teeth at the Élysée Palace. Asked if the French were annoyed, one high-ranking source paused, smiled, and then told me with a knowing twinkle that they were “more than annoyed”.
NEW WORLD: Express writer Kat Hopps with foreign minister of Gabon Michael Moussa-Adamo
So, apart from needling their French former masters, what does Gabon have to gain?
Mr Moussa-Adamo says the Commonwealth will be much more supportive than France in furthering Gabon’s economic, diplomatic and political interests.
“We don’t think – we know,” he told the Express. “Because that’s the way it works, that’s the way it always has been with the Commonwealth. It’s more practical and pragmatic. It’s more hands-on – it’s a mindset.”
Oil-rich Gabon hopes Commonwealth support will help it transition to a more green economy through sustainable timber logging and conservation. In its determination to become bilingual, the country is introducing English lessons in its primary schools.
It’s a hugely popular move. Commercial trading student Justa Kombila, 24, supports the decision.
“English is an important and international language,” he says. “Gabon joining the Commonwealth will help us to develop our country.”
Princesse Megha, 16, and Marion Mounguengui, 17, agree. The two girls began learning English in lockdown and would love more local people to speak it.
FUNDING: Alfred Mabika-Obanda says Commonwealth links will boost his health work
They’re also big fans of our Queen. “I really admire her because she’s really strong and rules a country,” says Marion.
“Some people don’t believe women can do that kind of thing. But the fact that she served for 70 years makes her a role model. I would like to be that strong.”
Some 55 per cent of Gabonese people are under the age of 25, not particularly high for sub-Saharan Africa where 70 per cent are under 30.
The United Nations says youth employment opportunities in Africa do exist “but only if these new generations are fully empowered to realise their best potential”.
In 2009, Rwanda became the second nation after Mozambique to voluntarily join the Commonwealth without having any historic ties to Britain.
The weakening of its bonds to Gabon and Togo could not come at a worse time for France. Anti-French sentiment is spreading across northern and western Africa among the country’s former colonies, including Chad, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.
Their discontent relates to France’s perceived sovereign stranglehold over her former colonies, feeding into wider concerns about security, economic injustice and perceived personal vested interests between French and African leaders dubbed “Françafrique”.
IN THE PICTURE: Kristina Obame will gain business advice on her filmmaking
In many ways, it appears to relate to a lack of respect. Gabon “doesn’t want to be perceived as a French backyard,” Mr Moussa-Adamo says.
He is “certain”, he says, that his country’s decision to join the Commonwealth could spark a wave of other French-speaking nations to follow suit.
Gabon is currently the fifth-largest oil producer in Africa but its commitment to restructuring its economy away from this has already elevated its standing internationally, according to Professor Lee White, Gabon’s Minister of Water, Forests, the Sea, and Environment in Charge of Climate Change and Land-use.
“We will benefit from that sort of Commonwealth bloc when we’re going into negotiations on climate and biodiversity,” says the British-born-and-raised biologist. He has played a crucial role in promoting conservation change in Gabon since arriving in 1989 for his doctoral work.
“I’ve already been invited to multiple meetings about the Commonwealth’s vision on climate change and they seem very interested to see what Gabon is about to contribute on that,” he says.
But Gabon’s admittance into the Commonwealth has courted other controversies, namely around whether it shares the same democratic values as its members.
Since gaining its independence in 1960, the country has had only three presidents, two of whom are father and son. President Ali Bongo, 63, who has ruled since 2009, is the successor of Omar Bongo, the country’s president from 1967 to 2009.
French authorities have investigated the Bongo family for financial corruption and mismanagement of public funds.
The current president has also faced voting-rigging allegations in the 2009 and 2016 elections, which his office fiercely denies.
The values enshrined in the Commonwealth’s formal charter state that its leaders “commit to upholding” democracy, human rights, peace and security, freedom of speech, gender equality and the rule of law.
But the Human Rights Foundation has branded Gabon a “feudal state” and questioned its commitment to maintaining human rights, highlighting the imprisonment of civil society leaders who opposed Ali Bongo’s re-election in 2016.
When the Express put forward these concerns to Mr Moussa-Adamo, he replied: “There will always be criticism. Can you give me an example of perfect democracy?”
The problem is “perception”, he continued.
“Perceptions sometimes create reality, even in Gabon. What human rights violations in Gabon are different to what you have anywhere else? Are the African-Americans killed in America not a violation of human rights when the police shoot them on the street?
“When the police put his shoes on somebody’s head is that not a human rights violation? We don’t do that in Gabon.”
And it’s true that the country has turbocharged its reforms in recent years. The government decriminalised homosexuality in 2020 and altered three laws to improve women’s rights and safety last year.
The new legislation protects women from domestic violence and rape and gives them equal rights to property and authority over their marital assets. They can open their own bank accounts and apply for credit more easily following a ban on gender discrimination in financial services.
This will benefit US-born environment filmmaker Kristina Obame, 30, who returned to the homeland of her diplomat parents two years ago to run an independent production company.
The former NGO worker has benefited from new venture capital funding set up to help budding entrepreneurs increase their business and trade opportunities with Britain and other Commonwealth countries.
“I see myself as a creative but I don’t necessarily know how to run a business,” she says. “It’s been nice to have experts in one place I can approach and ask, ‘How do I do this? What is the next step? What is the paperwork?
Things are very bureaucratic here, so there’s paperwork involved for pretty much everything.”
Gabonese biologist Alfred Mabika-Obanda, 32, who studied Genomics in Washington DC, believes he will benefit from increased funding through the Commonwealth for his innovative health system model, providing remote health diagnoses and remedies.
He acts as a general practitioner for serious illnesses, working with local healthcare centres through a telecommunication mobile app for poor rural communities located up to 500 miles from Libreville.
“It could be typhoid fever, diabetes – we have everything in our laboratory,” he says. He also offers a mobile clinic where it’s needed.
Alfred devised his idea after suffering a life-changing burn to his body, aged eight, when a pan of boiling water fell on him. He had to be evacuated to France because of the lack of medical specialists in Gabon.
“The situation hasn’t changed and is even worse in rural communities,” he says. “People are dying of diabetes.”
Now he hopes to link up with researchers in England to learn about the latest advances in next-generation sequencing to help diagnose cancers and other diseases more quickly.
But his dream is only possible thanks to greater access to funding and expertise through the Commonwealth.
“It’s my purpose in life,” he says. “It will be my achievement to help people, create that model and give people access to health care.”
As its leader, the Queen said in 2013 that the Commonwealth “can offer us a fresh view of life”, and it’s a view Gabon cannot wait to embrace.