Messi’s Gabon visit ignites controversy
LONDON — Footballer Lionel Messi has been accused by activists of endorsing a central African “dictatorship” that has failed to halt the ritual murder of children.
The Barcelona striker and children’s rights advocate visited Gabon last month to take part in a ceremony at one of the venues for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.
The Us-based Human Rights Foundation said that Mr Messi “displayed enthusiastic support” for Ali Bongo, who was elected president of Gabon in 2009 in polls that triggered days of rioting and opposition complaints of fraud.
He succeeded his father Omar Bongo, who had a tight grip on power in the oil-rich state from 1967 until his death nearly 42 years later.
Thor Halvorssen, president of the HRF, said: “In providing PR services to Gabon’s Bongo family, Lionel Messi has seriously undermined the credibility of his own charitable foundation.”
Mr Messi serves as a Unicef ambassador to promote youth education. Halvorssen claimed that, by taking part in the trip, the footballer had “endorsed a kleptocratic regime that refuses to investigate the ritual murder of children in Gabon”.
Mr Bongo’s government has been criticised for doing little to prevent ritual killings of children whose lips, tongues, genitals and other organs are removed for their supposed supernatural powers.
Gabon and Mr Messi have denied reports that the soccer star was paid €3.5 million (about M48.45 million) by the Bongo family for the visit, which was broadcast on state television and used, according to the HRF, as “internal propaganda”.
Mr Messi helped lay one of the first stones for a planned 40 000-capacity stadium in the second biggest city, Port-gentil and was criticised by an opposition party for turning up in denim shorts and a T-shirt.
The 28-year-old Argentinian also visited a state-owned hospital and the opening of a restaurant owned by Mr Bongo’s family, where the president said: “When I was in Barcelona a few years ago, I met Messi who had told me that he would come to visit me in Libreville. It’s a promise he made me. He is a man of honour who just kept his word.”
The HRF alleges that the Bongo family have used the former French colony as their “feudal state” for decades, systematically looting its vast natural resources, oil wealth and rainforests.
The family deny this. About a third of Gabon’s population of 1.5 million still lives in poverty but the World Bank categorises it as an upper-middle income country with a gross national income per capita of more than $10 000 (about M126 244).
The HRF has previously drawn attention to celebrity missteps including Hollywood actor Hilary Swank attending a lavish concert for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Erykah Badu’s helicopter visit to Swaziland, where she sang for the country’s absolute monarch.
Gabon denies that it is a dictatorship. In an interview in Libreville last year, Bongo, who sent his son to the independent boarding school Eton in the UK, told the Guardian: “Gabon is a very democratic state. You should spend a little more time here and read the press. You will see how I am being treated, myself and my government, authorities and officials by the press. Total liberty and freedom of speech, sometimes even going too far.”
He added: “No, democracy really is not an issue here and truthfully most of the Gabonese people will not tell you that it is an issue. Of course, if you are a member of the opposition and you are looking for argument, you will always come with that, but I haven’t imprisoned one opposition leader yet for having insulted me or whatever. Some newspapers have run into some problems because (they) appeal to violence but other than that no, it really is not an issue here.”
In January, Jean Ping, the head of an opposition coalition in Gabon, claimed that his house had been attacked by at least 200 people, including one armed with a poisoned knife and sent by one of Bongo’s advisers.
The government denied the accusation. Ping was subsequently charged with imprisoning and torturing people who had attacked his home.
Lionel Messi (centre) is given a tour around the construction site of the Port-gentil stadium by the country’s president, Ali Bongo, to his left.