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Gabon takes on France's Veolia over pollution - or is it politics?

The Véolia (SEEG) offices in Libreville, Gabon. AFP PHOTO/COUMBA SYLLA

French water and waste giant Veolia said Friday that it wants the World Bank to intervene in a bitter dispute with Gabon. The small African nation cancelled its contract with the French firm after accusing it of polluting the country, but that may not be the full story.

Veolia has provided water and electricity distribution services in this central African country since 1997. However, back in February, the government of Gabonese President Ali Bongo cancelled the French firm’s contract and seized control of its facilities, accusing it of polluting its site with petroleum waste.

“Pollution is just a pretence,” says Douglas Yates, a Gabon specialist who works at the American Graduate School in Paris. “Many companies pollute in Gabon so it is ludicrous to say the authorities woke up one day and decided to punish Veolia.”

Yates, who is author of the newly published fourth edition of the Historical Dictionary of Gabon, says that this dispute is actually about money. An estimated 80 percent of Gabon’s annual budget is funded through oil. So, when oil prices dropped, it left the government scrambling.

Oil price fall

“Ali Bongo’s legitimacy depends on delivering on his Le Gabon Emergent [Emerging Gabon] development programme, which is a huge infrastructure programme that includes building roads and ports and providing water and electricity to the Gabonese people,” says Yates. “When oil was 100 dollars a barrel, he was able to spend and borrow to produce those projects.”

Now the price is down, according to Yates, Bongo has been trying to save money by clamping down on the large French companies that operate in the country with very little oversight or regulation, like Veolia.

“When [the government] tried to tell it what to do, Veolia, as a totally private company, didn't comply. So Ali Bongo, who is becoming a bit more autocratic and violent, sent in his stormtroopers,” says Yates. “He can get away with it when he is doing that to NGOs and journalists and opposition leaders, but it is a different thing when he does it to a big powerful French corporation.”

Veolia has been operating in Gabon for over 20 years and has just signed another five-year contract in July.

“Veolia wants to stay because it has invested a lot of its own money,” Yates says. “Veolia is not interested in abandoning its assets, which explains why it is seeking arbitration.”

Independence from France

But Antoine Glaser, a journalist and Africa specialist who also spoke to RFI, does not think that this dispute is all about the money. He thinks that Ali Bongo is making a political statement that he doesn’t want to depend on France, Gabon’s former colonial power.

“I think Ali Bongo wants to show to France that now he’s got a lot of other partners than French companies,” Glaser says. “In recent years, a lot of French companies like Total and Bouyges have actually been leaving Gabon.”

Bongo’s desire to look elsewhere marks a break with the politics of his father and predecessor as president, Omar Bongo.

“Omar Bongo was not just francophone but Francophile,” says Glaser. “He was very close to France and the French presidents. But Ali Bongo has always been in rupture with France. He don’t need France as much as his father used to”

Both Glaser and Yates says there are other companies interested in taking over Veolia’s contract for waste and water services in Gabon, including Singaporean company Olam, which is already working in Gabon, as well as Russian and Chinese interests.