Washington, DC — Ambassador-designate testifies in Senate
"Both Gabon and Sao Tome face futures full of promise and challenge," Ambassador-designate Barrie Walkley told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee June 23. "If confirmed as ambassador, I will look forward to working with these two friendly countries in hopes of meeting the challenges and realizing the promises."
The challenge for Gabon in the face of a decline in oil production, he said, "is to manage change away from a petroleum-based economy to a diversified economy intended to increase economic opportunity for the average citizen, while at the same time opening up the country's political system."
Sao Tome and Principe, with sizable oil revenues expected as early as 2007, will face challenges also, Walkley said. "There could be significant new investment in infrastructure, education and training, job creation and poverty reduction to create the necessary conditions for Sao Tome's progressive development as a democracy," he said. Mishandled, he cautioned, "the boom could threaten Sao Tome's security, stability, and its proud tradition of democracy." The ambassador-designate said his mission would be to act as a "valued friend," helping the nation to become prosperous and stable.
Following is the text of Ambassador-designate Walkley's statement, as prepared for delivery:
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:
I am honored to appear before you today. I thank the President and the Secretary of State for the trust and confidence placed in me as their nominee for Ambassador to the Gabonese Republic and Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe.
If confirmed, I will be dedicated to advancing U.S. interests in Gabon and in Sao Tome and Principe. For many years now, I have had the honor of furthering our interests in Africa, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Somalia in the 1960s and most recently as Ambassador in Conakry, the Republic of Guinea. Much of my Foreign Service career has been spent in Africa, where experience in countries such as Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Africa has confirmed my belief that we can most effectively help strengthen the security, political development, and economic growth of our African partners by concentrating on two things: the promotion of more representative and transparent political systems and the invigoration of international trade and investment. I am also convinced that unless we increase efforts with our African partners to combat HIV/AIDS, much of the progress made on the continent will be decisively reversed.
Mr. Chairman, both Gabon and Sao Tome face futures full of promise and challenge. If confirmed as Ambassador, I will look forward to working with these two friendly countries in hopes of meeting the challenges and realizing the promises.
Gabon, long a significant oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa, is now experiencing a decline in oil production. Gabon's challenge is to manage change away from a petroleum-based economy to a diversified economy intended to increase economic opportunity for the average citizen, while at the same time opening up the country's political system. We are hopeful that Gabon will take full advantage of a new program approved last month by the International Monetary Fund to begin making necessary changes.
Gabon has been an island of stability in an unstable region. To remain so, President Bongo needs to open up the country's political system and reinforce political pluralism, while creating new economic opportunity. President Bongo, who has led Gabon for 37 years, had the constitution amended in 2003 to allow himself to run for President indefinitely. Currently there does not exist a level playing field on which political opponents can challenge the status quo by means of elections. There are also some restrictions on press freedoms and prison conditions remain poor.
One particular concern is the trafficking of children from other, poorer African countries into Gabon. To its credit, the Gabonese parliament recently approved a law criminalizing the trafficking of children. Earlier it set up a telephone hotline whereby such children can contact the authorities for help.
If confirmed, I will consistently engage the government as a friend to take additional efforts to stop the trafficking in children, to transform the current political process into a pluralistic one, to generally work toward improving the human rights picture in Gabon, and to create new economic opportunity for its citizens.
The United States, whenever possible, needs to go even beyond our Peace Corps program there to help Gabon achieve its economic and political goals. This is important because we have a number of interests at stake in Gabon's success and stability. Though its own role as an oil producer may be diminishing, Gabon's larger role in the secure development of the Gulf of Guinea's increasingly important oil resources remains key. In addition, Gabon has supported U.S. interests over the years in a variety of ways. President Bongo, who recently visited Washington and met with President Bush, has consistently pursued peace in the region's many conflicts over the past decade and Gabon has shown solidarity with us in combating terrorism. U.S. military access in Gabon has provided safe haven for Americans evacuated from nearby conflicts. Gabon and the United States have a number of cooperative military programs in effect. Gabon has also concluded Article 98 agreement with us. Gabon's diplomatic stature was recently confirmed when its Foreign Minister, Jean Ping, was elected to the Presidency of the United Nations General Assembly, with his duties to begin this September.
Gabon's biodiversity is a global treasure. In 2002, President Bongo set aside approximately 10 percent of the country's land area for national parks. Gabon is a key member of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership (CBFP), an organization focusing on conservation and sustainable development of this important ecosystem. Various U.S. agencies are assisting Gabon in the development of its new park system, eco-tourism, and improved natural resources management. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation recently hosted a conference on developing eco-tourism in Gabon. We look forward to strengthening this partnership with Gabon, a major regional environmental leader.
Sao Tome and Principe is a small island state off the west coast of Africa. It is one of the poorest countries in Africa, and therefore the world. Nevertheless, for more than a decade it has been an exemplary multi-party democracy. Elections are transparent and power is transferred peacefully from the losing to the winning party. With highly favorable marks from Freedom House, its human rights record makes it an example within Africa.
However, Sao Tome and Principe faces enormous challenges. The country will likely be the recipient of significant oil revenues that could begin as early as 2007. Over the next year, U.S. oil companies, including Exxon Mobil and ChevronTexaco, will begin deep-sea oil exploration. U.S. oil services companies and other secondary industries are also likely to establish a presence and invest in the development of Sao Tome and Principe's offshore petroleum resource. U.S. interests will lie in ensuring the increasing transparency of the country's economy.
As the Committee is aware, sudden great wealth can be a mixed blessing. Properly handled, the coming oil bonanza could transform Sao Tome and Principe in fundamental ways. There could be significant new investment in infrastructure, education and training, job creation and poverty reduction to create the necessary conditions for Sao Tome's progressive development as a democracy. Mishandled, the boom could threaten Sao Tome's security, stability, and its proud tradition of democracy. This danger was underscored as recently as July 2003 when Sao Tome experienced an attempted coup. It will be my mission, if I am confirmed, to help Sao Tome and Principe -- a valued friend in the region -- become a prosperous and stable country.
Like Gabon, Sao Tome has concluded an Article 98 agreement with the United States. Also worth noting is the fact that Sao Tome has, since the early 1990s, been the home of a $50 million transmitting facility for Voice of America (VOA). Its island location makes it ideal for transmitting and relaying programs over long distances.
If I am confirmed, Mr. Chairman, you have my assurance that I will work closely with you and other members of the Committee to promote U.S. interests in Gabon and in Sao Tome and Principe. I will promote political and economic transparency and support human rights and the rule of law. I will work to identify investment opportunities for U.S. businesses and strive to ensure they can compete on a level playing field. Above all, I will do everything in my power to secure support for action against terrorism. The security of Americans, and our embassies, must be the major priority for each ambassador. I will, if confirmed, take every step to ensure the safety of our people and their well-being and work closely with the Department of State and the Congress to upgrade the security of our facilities in Gabon and in Sao Tome and Principe. I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.