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Migrants' dreams of riches lead to slums of Gabon

LIBREVILLE (Reuters) - Bodies of African migrants wash up on the beaches and those who survive the ocean voyage complain of discrimination and police harassment. This is not Italy or Spain, but the small central African country of Gabon.

While Western Europe attracts thousands of African migrants each year, many making a perilous journey by sea only to find poverty, Africa itself has a similar story.

Gabon has long been a magnet for the poor of neighboring countries, lured by a mirage of prosperity.

The discovery of petroleum in the 1960s, just a few years after independence from France, made Gabon one of Africa’s first oil exporters and, on paper, gave its small population one of the highest incomes per head in the world’s poorest continent.

Futuristic government buildings have mushroomed along the main boulevard of the capital Libreville, while plush offices and hotels jostle for space on a seafront highway where slick dark limousines and four-wheel-drives glide by.

Forty years of peace under President Omar Bongo, Africa’s longest-serving ruler, have helped make Gabon an oasis of stability in a region torn by civil wars and coups.

neighboring states such as Cameroon, with a population nearly 10 times larger, have looked on enviously.

“There’s no work in Cameroon so I came here,” said Mohamed, a taxi driver who lives in a shanty town behind the National Assembly. “But the Gabonese don’t like migrants ... they always want to get something from you.

“Girls won’t talk to you when they realize you’re a foreigner and police in Libreville hassle you for money.”

For many migrants, the journey ends in the wooden shacks and breeze-block houses in the shadow of Libreville’s offices. These slums are full of poor workers from Senegal, Nigeria, Cameroon, Benin, Togo and elsewhere in West Africa.

Meanwhile, in wealthy neighborhoods supermarket shelves are stocked with expensive European imports, everything from eggs to champagne, for the minority benefiting from the oil boom.

Consultants ECA International ranked Libreville as the 8th most expensive city in the world for expatriates last year, continuing almost two decades near the top of the index.


Despite outward signs of prosperity, there are not enough well-paid jobs for Gabonese themselves, let along migrants.

Gabon’s population is estimated at 1.5 million, a third of whom live below the poverty line, according to the United Nations, despite a theoretical gross domestic product of more than $7,000.

No-one knows the population of the city’s slums, which lack reliable water and electricity supplies and house a migrant underclass that includes taxi drivers, waiters and laborers.

Migrants to Gabon from West Africa can pay about $450 for a place on an open wooden boat packed with up to 300 people for the three-day journey.

With only two patrol boats to police the country’s 800-km (500-mile) coastline, the chances of detection are slim.

There are other risks: the bodies of 12 West African migrants washed up in Libreville in December after their boat was smashed by the Atlantic rollers.

The peoples of West and Central Africa have a nomadic tradition. Migration is encouraged by ethnic and family ties that criss-cross national borders established by colonial powers.

Nonetheless migration in Africa has become a sensitive topic, with friction between ethnic groups sometimes flaring into conflict. In Ivory Coast, the massive influx of labor from landlocked Burkina Faso helped spark a 2002-2003 civil war.

The Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC) was supposed to tear down economic barriers between the six states of the region, but it has stalled over rivalries among its leaders, notably Bongo and Cameroon’s Paul Biya.

“CEMAC just doesn’t work. The presidents don’t like each other,” said Mohamed, who paid 550,000 CFA francs ($1,209) for his residence permit in Gabon, a huge sum in Africa.

Most migrants are happy just to have work. Felix, another taxi driver, fled Togo when violence broke out after a presidential election two years ago and hundreds were killed. His wife and two children are still missing although the 40-year-old has scoured refugee camps.

“In Togo, it’s not like here, you cannot find work,” he said. “I came here with nothing, now I can save perhaps 100,000 francs every month.”

According to the CIA’s “World Factbook”, Gabon’s unemployment rate of about 20 percent remains well below neighboring countries such as Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Angola.

Gabon launched a debut $1 billion 10-year global bond at the end of last year to fund a debt buyback. The issue was 2-1/2 times oversubscribed.

However, many people here say the number of jobless has crept up and living standards have fallen. With oil output subsiding and questions looming over who will succeed the 72-year-old president, the future appears less assured.

“Many people are worried about what will happen after Bongo. They may have problems brewing,” said Sam Okwara, a Nigerian mechanic. “It’s still better here than in Nigeria. It’s too violent there: after a week in Nigeria I’m ready to come back.”

Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Andrew Dobbie