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Etienne Tshisekedi’s body arrives in Kinshasa for funeral

Felix Tshisekedi vowed to repatriate his father’s remains and bury them in his home country

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Etienne Tshisekedi's body arrives in Kinshasa for funeral

The body of Etienne Tshisekedi, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s revered opposition leader and former prime minister, arrived in Kinshasa on Thursday, an emotional moment for the country after his son Felix became president earlier this year.

An opponent of authoritarianism in DRC, Tshisekedi died in Belgium in February 2017 at the age of 84, unable to witness his son’s victory in bitterly contested elections at the end of last year.

Felix Tshisekedi vowed to repatriate his father’s remains and bury them in his home country – a goal that faced multiple obstacles under his predecessor Joseph Kabila.

After a last-minute delay to a scheduled Wednesday departure, a jet carrying the body arrived from Brussels in Kinshasa airport on Thursday evening.

His son Felix led a delegation at the airport, where a hearse decorated in the national colours waited, journalists at the scene said.

A white coffin draped in the national, flag was unloaded from the plane and escorted away by white-gloved attendants. Several thousand supporters and well-wishers waited outside the airport.

The programme of mourning includes a display of the body, a mass and rally on Friday at an 80,000-seat stadium in Kinshasa.

It will be followed by a funeral on Saturday in Nsele, on the eastern outskirts of the capital. Six African heads of state are expected, including the presidents of Angola, the neighbouring Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Togo, according to the DRC presidency.

Thorn in dictator’s side

Etienne Tshisekedi spent decades in politics but never reached the top job.

He served as interior minister under Mobutu Sese Seko, before joining the opposition, where he was a persistent thorn in the dictator’s side. 

He co-founded the UDPS in 1982 after a stint in prison and in the 1990s was appointed prime minister several times, each time falling out with Mobutu after a matter of months or even days.

In 1997, Mobutu was ousted in a rebellion led by Joseph Kabila’s father Laurent. Tshisekedi quickly became an opponent of the new regime, a stance that continued after Laurent Kabila’s assassination in 2001 and the rise of his son Joseph.

Tshisekedi refused to recognise Kabila’s legitimacy to the very last.

He boycotted the country’s elections in 2006 on the grounds of fraud, and was beaten in the 2011 ballot, which was tainted by massive irregularities. 

“His fight for democracy, freedom and dignity inspires us all,” opponent Moise Katumbi, Congolese politician and businessman, wrote in a message on Twitter.

Almost two years after his death, Felix Tshisekedi was sworn in January 24 as president after elections that saw Kabila step down after 18 years in power.

It was the first peaceful transition of power since the DRC gained independence from Belgium in 1960.

The handover however was marred by allegations of election rigging and by Kabila’s continued domination of politics after amassing extensive clout during his years in office.

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Journalists’ association condemns police threats in Somali

Police at a checkpoint near the site of Saturday’s bombing in Mogadishu, which killed eight people

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somalia journalists bash police

A Somali journalists’ association Sunday slammed the actions of police who it said threatened to shoot reporters trying to access the scene of a car bombing near parliament and warned of a “worsening situation” for the country’s press.

Police at a checkpoint near the site of Saturday’s bombing in Mogadishu, which killed eight people and was claimed by the Al-Shabaab jihadist group, stopped a group of reporters from international newsgroups.

“When the journalists tried to explain to the police about their reporting mission, a police officer fired two bullets (in the) air and then pointed his rifle on Jama Nur’s head, according to Jama Nur Ahmed and two other colleagues,” the Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS) said in a statement.

Also in the group were journalists from Reuters, AFP and Turkey’s Anadolu news agency, followed by a second wave of reporters who were similarly denied access.

“The journalists said the police officers told them they had orders restricting journalist coverage at the scenes of attacks and threatened that any journalist who tries to film will either be shot dead or his/her equipment will be broken resulting (in) the journalists to return back from the scene,” said the SJS.

It charged Somali police treat journalists “like criminals”, preventing them from doing their work of reporting on events in the country. “This is a symptom of a worsening situation against journalists in Somalia”.

It said that on May 14 police confiscated reporters’ equipment, detained a cameraman, and beat up two others trying to report on another Mogadishu explosion.  

AFP has documented several incidents in recent months of journalists being intimidated and threatened and their equipment seized while trying to report on Shabaab attacks.

The SJS called on the Ministry of Information, the commissioner of police and the office of the prime minister to open an investigation, “and take appropriate steps against those responsible.”

“We call the highest offices of the government including that of the Office of the Prime Minister to intervene in order to for the journalists to report freely and accurately without fear,” said the statement.

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Gabon appoints popular environmentalist, ‘Mr. Green’ as new forestry minister

Lee White, who has lived in Gabon for three decades and is a citizen, takes over one of the most sensitive jobs in the country.

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Gabon appoints popular environmentalist, 'Mr. Green' as new forestry minister
Newly appointed Gabon Minister of Water and Forests, British Lee White was, before his appointment, the head of Gabon's National Parcs (Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux, ANPN). -(AFP)

Here’s your new job: You have to protect the country’s precious tropical forests. You have to stop illegal logging and fight the entrenched corruption backed by powerful forces which goes with it. By the way, you are a committed environmentalist — and you are foreign-born.

This is the challenge facing Lee White, a green activist born in Britain, who this week was named minister of water and forests in Gabon.

Related: Gabon vows no mercy over $250 million hardwood theft

White, who has lived in Gabon for three decades and is a citizen, takes over one of the most sensitive jobs in the country.

Long-running tensions between logging and conservation have been sharpened by corruption and falling revenues from oil, Gabon’s main money-earner.

“My appointment was a surprise for many people here,” White admitted in an interview with reporters after President Ali Bongo Odimba appointed him on Monday.

He said Bongo had asked him to “put an end to bad practices… (as well as) the corruption in the ministry”.

Related: Mystery in Gabon: Illegal haul of sacred wood disappears

White acknowledged the scale of the tasks ahead.

“We have to sustainably manage the Gabonese forest to improve the living environment of the Gabonese people, to stabilise its natural treasures and to preserve our ecosystems,” he said.

Almost 80 per cent of Gabon is covered by forests.

The forestry sector is a historic pillar of the economy, accounting for 17,000 jobs and 60 per cent of output excluding oil.

About a quarter of Gabon’s population live in rural areas, and many people depend on the forests for food and livelihood.

At the same time, the forests themselves are a treasure trove of biodiversity, much of it rare or endangered. 

Gabon appoints popular environmentalist, 'Mr. Green' as new forestry minister
Tropical forest exploitation, Gabon. Biosphoto / Jean-Francois Noblet

Related: Gabon threatens crackdown over theft of sacred wood

They are a haven for great apes, forest elephants and the black panther, as well as rare species of trees, some of them giants towering up to 60 metres (200 feet) high.

Manchester-born –

White, 53, was born in the northwestern English city of Manchester but grew up in Uganda — in a biography he recalls fighting at school with the son of former dictator Idi Amin.

In 1989, he arrived in Gabon, where he studied for a doctorate in zoology.

He took up Gabonese nationality in 2008 and the following year took over as head of the National Parks Agency (ANPN), a massive conservation project of 13 wildlife zones set up by the late president Omar Bongo, the incumbent’s father.

He was decorated by Queen Elizabeth II in 2010 for his dedication to nature conservation in Central Africa.

Lee’s high-profile defence of the rainforest and wildlife — often with the verdant Raponda Walker Arboretum near Libreville as a backdrop — made him a familiar face in the national media, which dubbed him “Monsieur Vert” (“Mister Green”).

Bongo turned to him for the job after firing the last forestry minister over a timber-smuggling scandal.

Related: Gabon’s president sacks vice president and forestry minister

Analysts say the job will require remarkable skills, juggling tact and principles, as well as rock-solid support from the top.

“This appointment can only be good news for protectors of the environment in Gabon,” said Gaspard Abitsi, director of a US-based NGO, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), in Gabon.

“He is perfectly familiar with the challenges of conservation on a national and international level.”

Graft –

Others are more cautious about the prospects of reform.

“There are enormous management problems at the ANPN, and this agency only accounts for 10 per cent of the land,” said Marc Ona, president of an NGO called the Brainforest Association and a member of the opposition.

“From now on, Lee White will have to manage all of the forests in Gabon… If he hasn’t succeeded at the ANPN, why would he succeed with the whole expanse of the territory?” 

“The problem,” said Ona, “is not which individual heads the ministry but the whole forestry system, which is corrupt.”

In a report issued in March, a British NGO, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) pointed the finger at a Chinese group, Dejia, which has wide-spreading logging interest in the Congo Basin.

Gabon appoints popular environmentalist, 'Mr. Green' as new forestry minister

It accused the firm of exceeding its logging quotas and spinning a web of patronage extending to ministers as well as the opposition.

The then forestry minister, Guy Bertrand Mapangou, initially lashed the report as biased and “inquisitorial” and seeking to “discredit” the country.

But within weeks, the government suspended Dejia’s licence at two logging sites.

Related: Gabon recovers 200 containers of rare hardwood, 153 still missing

On May 21, it fired Mapangou and Vice President, Pierre Claver Maganga Moussavou over the so-called “kevazingogate” scandal.

In February and March, authorities had seized nearly 5,000 cubic meters (176,000 cubic feet) of banned kevazingo wood — the equivalent of about 150 large container-loads, valued at around $8 million (seven million euros).

The contraband timber was found at storage sites belonging to Chinese companies at Libreville’s Owendo port — some of it disguised in containers bearing the stamp of the forestry ministry.

Related: 30 containers of kevazingo seized in Gabon

Kevazingo, also known as bubinga, takes many years to mature. Logging the wood is illegal in Gabon, but the temptation to flout the ban is huge. In Asia, kevazingo can fetch up to $2,000 per cubic metre.

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Central Africa Politics News

Gabon’s president orders PM to form a new government

Ali Bongo last month sacked his vice president and forestry minister following a scandal over the smuggling of precious timber.

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Ali Bongo
Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba flanked by his wife Sylvia, leaves the airport helped by a stick upon his arrival in Libreville

Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba, in his first televised speech since he returned to the country after a long absence due to a stroke, on Saturday called on his prime minister to form a new government.

He called for a smaller government, capable of being “exemplary, honest and ethical”.

Ali Bongo last month sacked his vice president and forestry minister following a scandal over the smuggling of precious timber.

The recorded speech came more than two months after his return to the country after a five-month absence in Morocco, where he was recovering from a stroke.

And it came as the country marked the 10th anniversary of the death of his father, Omar Bongo Ondimba, who ruled the country before him for 41 years.

Television pictures showed Ali Bongo, his wife and senior politicians at a mass in his memory in the presidential palace on the seafront of the capital Libreville.

Saturday’s speech was the first speech by the president since before his stroke.

But apart from a few words spoken on his return to the country in late March, he has said nothing in public since.

During his extended absence, the army quashed a brief attempted coup.

When he did return, on March 23, some opposition politicians called for a judicial enquiry into his state of health to determine if he was still capable of leading the country.

Ali Bongo took office after an election in 2009 that followed the death of his father.

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