Friday, 1 Mar 2024

British conservation expert feared missing in Gabon military takeover

British conservation expert feared to be missing in central African nation amid shocking military takeover

  • Lee White posted photos from Gabon hours before military said it seized power
  • READ MORE: Gabon coup: Army officers announce they have taken power 

A British conservation expert was last night feared to have been caught up in a coup in Gabon.

Lee White, 58, posted photos from the capital of the African nation hours before the military said it had seized power. 

He was a senior minister in the cabinet of deposed president Ali Bongo and had campaigned for him in recent elections.

The army seized power early yesterday, within minutes of Mr Bongo being declared winner in the election. 

He was placed under house arrest and the military said it had arrested one of his sons for treason.

Lee White, 58, posted photos from the capital of the African nation hours before the military said it had seized power

Soldiers said others in the president’s circle had been arrested for ‘high betrayal of state institutions, massive embezzlement of public funds and international financial embezzlement’.

READ MORE: Gabon coup: Army officers announce they have taken power

It was not clear if those detained included ministers from the president’s cabinet but a spokesman said the military had stepped in because ‘unpredictable, irresponsible governance’ had risked leading the country into chaos.

Professor White, who was awarded a CBE in 2010 for services to conservation, tweeted on Tuesday that he was in Libreville and waiting for the election results to be announced.

‘All is calm but the government has cut internet as a precaution following some provocative statements by opposition politicians,’ he said.

Professor White, a married father-of-three, was minister of forests, oceans, environment and climate change in Mr Bongo’s regime. 

His wife Kate, a biology and environmental science professor at Stirling University in Scotland, has also worked in Gabon for many years, but it is not known if she was in the country at the time of the coup.

Mr Bongo’s family has ruled Gabon since 1967 and he attended King Charles’s coronation in May. 

In September 2021 the then Prince of Wales hosted him at Kew for a visit focusing on biodiversity.

The army seized power early yesterday, within minutes of Mr Bongo being declared winner in the election

Professor White, originally from Manchester, was appointed environment minister in 2019 after working in Gabon for 30 years.

He had led a campaign for the country to create 13 national parks, covering 11 per cent of the rainforest nation, to protect its wildlife and forests, and helped crack down on illegal poaching and logging.

Speaking after his appointment, he conceded that his activities had made him some enemies, saying: ‘We dealt with a lot of corruption and it is fair to say that not everybody likes me.’ He described himself as ‘incorruptible’.

The official election results declared Mr Bongo the winner with 64 per cent of the vote. 

The opposition denounced the result as fraudulent and within minutes of the announcement gunfire was heard in the centre of Libreville.

Uniformed officers then appeared on state television and announced they had seized power.

Flights out of the country – which was admitted to the Commonwealth as the 55th member last year – were cancelled and all operations at its main port were halted, with authorities refusing to let vessels leave.

Gabon is an oil-rich nation and a member of OPEC, but its population faces poverty, high unemployment and rising prices.

Ali Bongo’s family has ruled Gabon since 1967 and he attended King Charles’s coronation in May

Mr Bongo came to power in 2009 after the death of his father Omar, who ruled for 41 years.

A video was released last night showing the president in his home appealing for help from the international community.

He said: ‘The people here have arrested me and my family… I don’t know what’s going on.

‘I [want] to send a message to all the friends we have all over the world to tell them to make noise.’

The Foreign Office and Stirling University declined to comment on whether they had heard from Professor White since the coup.

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