Libreville — An oil rich nation, where a minority is accused of benefiting disproportionately from mineral wealth...Clashes between police and the inhabitants of oil-producing areas that result in deaths...A scene from Nigeria? No - Ndolou, in south-western Gabon.
Civil society and government representatives joined forces this month in a bid to have fuel production in the area resume - this after demonstrations by villagers in November brought it to a halt. The villagers were protesting against unfair distribution of oil revenues.
"We refuse to live in poverty and with no electricity when we should be benefiting from the petroleum windfall to build schools, clinics and roads that would improve our daily lives," said Norbert Nguembi, a resident of Ndolou.
Although complaints about the division of oil wealth in Gabon date back to the early 1990s, they have not reached the frequency of those in Nigeria. Nonetheless, two people were killed in the November clashes between officials and Ndolou villagers.
The demonstrations are said to have become violent after a vehicle from PanAfrican Energy was prevented from leaving company premises.
This Canadian firm has become the target of local anger for allegedly not doing enough to remedy poor living conditions in its area of operations in south-western Gabon. Residents from seven villages in Ndolou have even formed a coalition to force PanAfrican Energy to leave the region.
"They (the villagers) do not understand why the money from oil on their lands has failed to produce any improvement in their living conditions," said Sylvain Mboumba, a member of the group.
But, a representative from another oil firm told IPS that the demands made by villagers should be directed at government - not foreign multinationals.
"Most oil companies in Gabon try to meet the demands of people in their regions, but the companies cannot overstep the government's supreme authority...to build roads, for example. It's up to the government to respond to its peoples' needs," said the representative, a geologist from the local subsidiary of Anglo-Dutch Shell, Shell Gabon.
Louis-Gaston Mayila, chair of the Economic and Social Council, an organisation that is mediating in the Ndolou dispute, says the villagers' demands for PanAfrican Energy to abandon its operations also fail to take into account Gabonese law.
"PanAfrican Energy obtained an exploration and development permit. It signed a contract with the government than can't be rescinded so easily. Furthermore, it has agreed to some major investment," noted Mayila.
The Canadian firm began operating in Ndolou in 2001, when it produced 600 barrels of oil a day. Over the years, this more than doubled to 2,200 barrels - a quota which is set to increase still more with the discovery of new oil deposits in Tsiengui.
In 1998, President Omar Bongo decreed that an annual payment of almost 620,000 dollars would go directly to authorities in Ndolou to meet local needs. However, no payments have yet been received.
"The villagers have just had enough of the government's broken promises" says Mboumba.
But, even if the inhabitants of Ndolou do succeed in squeezing more money out of government and the multinationals, their future may not be entirely rosy.
According to the World Bank, petroleum production in Gabon is declining rapidly, the discovery of deposits in places like Tsiengui notwithstanding. Unless significant new reserves are located soon, there is expected to be a marked drop in the number of barrels the country supplies each day.
According to the bank, Gabon's petroleum exports amounted to 17 million tonnes in 1998, and 12.5 million last year. By 2007, exports are expected to reach just seven million tonnes.
These concerns have been echoed by Shell Gabon.
At its headquarters in the south-western city of Gamba, the company has funded the construction of roads, schools and other infrastructure. While these investments have not completely smoothed relations with local Gabonese, they have contributed to the growth of the settlement.
"The city of Gamba was created along with the development of Shell Gabon's oilfields. Gamba used to be a village of a few dozen shacks at the beginning of the 1960s. Today Gamba has a population of about 9,500," says sociologist Fabien Renamy, who is based in Gabon's capital, Libreville.
However, Shell Gabon has emphasized that with the anticipated decline in petroleum output, local communities need to learn occupations that will allow them to earn a living that is independent of the company.