Messi’s Gabon visit ig­nites con­tro­versy

Lesotho Times - - Africa -

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.

— Guardian.

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.

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