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Key opposition figure in Equatorial Guinea held in Chad on ‘coup’ charges

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema has repeatedly accused people of seeking to overthrow him.

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Obian Nguema
President Teodoro Obiang Nguema

A leading Equatorial Guinea opposition figure arrested in Chad last week was preparing a coup against the Malabo government, a senior minister said Saturday.

Andres Esono Ondo, leader of the the Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS), was arrested on Thursday, said Equatorial Guinea’s external security minister Juan Antonio Bibang Nchuchuma.

The sole objective of his trip was to acquire weapons and ammunition and to recruit “terrorists” to carry out a coup in Equatorial Guinea, backed with foreign money, he added.

Esono Ondo was arrested in the Guera region, 500 kilometres (310 miles) from the Chadian capital “in the company of Saleh Kebzabo, leader of Chad’s main opposition party,” he said in an official note read on state media.

Contacted by AFP, Kebzabo dismissed the minister’s allegations as “gratuitous accusations” put up by the government to damage the opposition, but confirmed the arrest of Esono Ondo.

On Saturday, Equatorial Guinea’s main opposition party, the Citizens for Innovation (CI) also denounced Esono Ondo’s arrest.

The government wanted to “end democratic political resistance by the true opposition”, it said in a statement.

A diplomat in Equatorial Guinea, who asked to remain anonymous, also told AFP the government wanted to “silence dissenting voices and keep the opposition on the back foot”, adding that this kind of operation was common.

In 2015, Esono Ondo was falsely accused of hiring someone infected by the Ebola virus to transmit the deadly disease to Equatorial Guinea, where the football African Nations Cup final took place.

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, 76, has repeatedly accused people within Equatorial Guinea and elsewhere of seeking to overthrow him.

A trial of 150 other alleged coup plotters was suspended in early April, a defence lawyer said.

Obiang Nguema is now Africa’s longest-serving leader having himself seized power in a 1979 putsch. His critics accuse him of brutal repression, election fraud and corruption.

In a landmark 2017 judgment, a French court convicted his son, the country’s vice president Teodorin Obiang, of stealing public money to buy luxury goods in France.

He was handed a three-year suspended sentence in the trial, which he did not attend.

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Central Africa News

Social media restriction in Chad lifted after one year

Access to social media was cut in March 2018, as public opposition mounted over Deby’s plans to push through changes to the constitution

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High costs and slow speed mar Equatorial Guinea's dreams for internet access

Chad President Idriss Deby said Saturday he was lifting social media restrictions which were imposed more than a year ago for “security reasons.”

“For some months, security requirements led the government to toughen access conditions and control measures for electronic communications,” Deby said in a closing address to a digital forum in the capital N’Djamena. 

“These measures were imposed in a context of terrorist threats (but)” the current situation ” leads me … to instruct the firms concerned to lift immediately the restriction on electronic communications,” said Deby.

On Saturday afternoon, it was possible to access social media applications including Whatsapp and Twitter, an AFP journalist reported.

Access to social media was cut in March last year as public opposition mounted over Deby’s plans to push through changes to the constitution shoring up his power after almost three decades in office.

Access remained possible using VPN networks but the use of those is costly in one of the world’s poorest nations.

Barely five per cent of the population enjoys internet access.

Chad is a Western ally in the fight against jihadist groups in Africa and notably faces threats from Boko Haram, which has made several deadly incursions into its territory in recent months.

The largely desert north, bordering Sudan, Libya and Niger, is highly volatile while several rebel groups have set up base just over the border with Libya.

In late January, Chad rebels seeking to destabilise Deby entered the northeast of the country from Libya but were pushed back after French air strikes.

In the east, farmers and nomadic groups have also clashed while the south on the border with the Central African Republic is still tense after the 2013 overthrow of former CAR president sparked unrest which spilt over the border.

Legislative elections in Chad are scheduled to take place by the end of the year having been postponed several times since 2015 as Deby, who grabbed power in 1990, looks to maintain his grip on the country.

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Violence rocks Central African Republic after killing of trader

Shooting resumed Thursday morning and shops in the area’s arterial Barthelemy Boganda Avenue were closed

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Violence rocks Central African Republic after killing of vendor

Clashes rocked a volatile Muslim-majority area of the Central African Republic capital Bangui for a second day Thursday in tit-for-tat violence after a vendor was killed by a local militia.

The PK5 district has become a flashpoint in the country, already weakened by sectarian violence and dogged by militias.

“It started with a dispute between a petrol seller and armed youths,” said Awad Al Karim, the imam of the Ali Babolo mosque, explaining that the vendor did not want to pay a tax imposed by a local self-defence unit.

Two youths then lobbed a grenade, killing a 40-year-old man. The victim’s family turned to a rival militia to avenge his killing, sparking clashes on Wednesday.

Gunfire continued overnight and into Thursday, the spokesman for the UN mission in CAR Vladimir Monteiro told reporters.

“We have sent patrols in the district,” he said.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said 10 people were recorded as injured on Thursday morning.

Shooting resumed Thursday morning and shops in the area’s arterial Barthelemy Boganda Avenue were closed and the streets were deserted, a journalist said.

“It started from a simple case of racketeering. However, the market is empty and people are scared,” a shopkeeper said.

The distinction between fighters and civilians is sometimes difficult to draw in the PK5 district, a major economic hub which has been a battleground on and off since 2014.

The CAR plunged into conflict in 2013 after the country’s longtime leader Francois Bozize was ousted by a predominantly Muslim rebel alliance called the Seleka. 

Nominally Christian militias called the anti-Balaka emerged in response, accelerating a cycle of sectarian violence.

Former colonial power, France intervened militarily from 2013 to 2016 to expel the Seleka and then wound down the operation.

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Corruption scandal hampers timber industry operations in Gabon

Wood is big money in the Central African nation, which is almost 80 per cent covered by forests.

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Corruption hurts Gabon's Timber industry

Tropical timber is piling up at Gabon’s main port as the country’s logging industry reels from a corruption scandal that brought down the vice president and ushered in a veteran environmentalist to oversee its forestry.

Wood is big money in the central African nation, which is almost 80 per cent covered by forests. The timber industry accounts for 17,000 jobs and 60 per cent of non-oil related GDP. But at the port of Owendo on the Libreville peninsula, exports have stagnated for months and warehouses are overflowing.

The trouble began in late February, when customs officials discovered huge quantities of kevazingo, a precious and banned hardwood, in two Chinese-owned depots at Owendo. Nearly 5,000 cubic metres were seized, worth around $8 million, some of it disguised in containers bearing the stamp of the forestry ministry. 

Several suspects were arrested, but the plot thickened in April when 353 of the confiscated containers mysteriously disappeared from the port. The ensuing scandal, dubbed kevazingogate, led to the government sacking the vice president, the forestry minister and several senior civil servants.

The minister was replaced last month by British-born Lee White – an environmental campaigner who has lived for years in Gabon, battling to conserve its forests and wildlife. 

Gabonese President Ali Bongo with forstry minister as corruption hurts the Timber industry
Gabonese President Ali Bongo (2nd L) listens to Water and Forestry Minister Gabriel Tchango (2nd R) before National Parks head Lee With (R) and Prime Minister Raymond Ndong Sima (L) on June 27, 2012, during the burning of five tons of ivory worth around 10 million euros in Libreville. AFP PHOTO / WILS YANICK MANIENGUI (Photo by WILS YANICK MANIENGUI / AFP)

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

Scandal hits timber exports

The scandal has “heavily affected people working in Gabon’s timber industry, without differentiating between those who cheat and those who play by the rules,” said Philippe Fievez, head of French timber company Rougier in Gabon, which has been present in the country since colonial times.

He said the company had been able to export wood for just three of the first six months of the year and at the height of the crisis had had to temporarily lay off 400 of its 1,400 employees. “It’s going to take us between six and nine months to return to normal.”

After the stash of kevazingo, also called bubinga, was found in late February, the team responsible for checking cargo loaded onto ships at ports was suspended, accused of complicity in a smuggling plot.

The following month, timber exports ground to a halt. “A month later, the team was replaced, allowing exports to resume,” said Fievez. But then the containers vanished in April, and several top executives were suspended and the fallout reached the highest reaches of power. 

Francoise Van de Ven, secretary-general of the forestry industry association UFIGA, said, “our companies have been unable to export since early May – we are talking about a considerable loss of profits”.

White, the new forestry minister, “immediately took on the case” after his appointment in mid-June and exports “have just resumed,” she said. But the scandal has inflicted “significant” reputational damage, she admitted.

Gabon's Forest minister hopes to resume Timber exports
Photo taken on September 29, 2016 British born Professor Lee White, then head of Gabon’s National Parcs (Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux, ANPN) sits in a Gazelle helicopter for wildlife anti poaching purposes in Gabon, donated by South Africa’s Ichikowitz Family Foundation in Midrand, north of Johannesburg. – White has been appointed new Gabon’s Forest minister in a Gabonese government reshuffle, a move that follows a scandal over the smuggling of precious timber, AFP reports on June 11, 2019. (Photo by Karel PRINSLOO / AFP)

Related: Foreign investors are flocking to Nigeria’s film industry

Tarnished image also affects timber exports

Exports were also hit by a damning report issued by British NGO the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in March that pointed the finger at a Chinese group, Dejia, which has widespread logging interests in the Congo Basin.

The report laid out the apparent ease with which officials took bribes to cover up the fraudulent activities of some loggers, and within weeks of its release, the government suspended Dejia’s licence at two logging sites.

Benjamin Feng of the Chinese company KHLL Forestry said that now “buyers have the impression there is a risk of purchasing illegal timber when buying wood from Gabon”. “We have about 1,500 cubic metres (53,000 cu. feet) of Azobe wood ready to go to Europe, but my Dutch buyer is hesitating, asking me: ‘What proves that your wood is legal?’.”

“I can prove it, I have all the papers, but the image has been tarnished,” he said. Rougier’s Fievez tried to look on the bright side. “At least the scandal had the merit of pointing out the bad practices of some loggers – now everyone plays by the same rules.”

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