At a gathering of high school students in Libreville on Wednesday November 8, a police officer lost his temper and threw a tear gas canister inside a minibus full of students. Our Observer was on the scene in Gabon's capital and saw what happened. He says that three people were hurt during the incident.
It happened in the PK7 neighbourhood of Libreville around 7am. Teenage students were jostling each other to try to get into a minibus that would take them to their high school. But just when the vehicle was ready to set off, a police officer threw a tear gas grenade inside the bus, setting off a wave of panic. The police officer then started to aggressively push back the other students outside the vehicle, who were trying to open the door so that students could escape from the bus. Eventually, they managed to smash the windows of the vehicle by hitting them with their fists, and were able to drag their classmates out. An eyewitness filmed the scene.
"A police officer stepped on a student’s foot and refused to apologise"
Pierre (not his real name) is a student at the Omar Bongo high school. He watched the scene unfold on Wednesday morning.
I and other students from the high school were waiting for the taxi-bus. The taxi-buses often refuse to take us, because they think we’re disruptive, and we have a reputation for causing trouble. This is because there are teacher strikes almost every year, and students often join them in solidarity. So sometimes the students block the roads to force the taxi-bus to take them.
This is what happened on Wednesday in the PK7 area. Police were patrolling in the area because the students had been blocking the road, and one of them stepped on a student’s foot. The student asked him for an apology but the officer refused. The student was then rude to him [in a television interview on the channel TV+ Gabon, another student said that the student had said to the officer, ‘We want to go to school, stop bothering us, if you didn’t go to school that’s not our fault’.] The officer then slapped the student for being insolent. Then he and two other officers grabbed him and tried to put handcuffs on him. Other students intervened to try to separate them and managed to get the student as far as the taxi-bus. That’s when one of the officers threw the tear gas canister inside the vehicle. One student tried to open the door, but an officer tried to stop him. We heard someone shout behind us, ‘Break the windows!’ So I went towards the vehicle with a few others to help break the windows and help those inside to get out.
I counted at least three injured people who went to hospital – one girl who was pregnant, one student who had trouble breathing and another who had hurt himself breaking the window. This is nowhere near the first time that the local police officers have set on the students from our school. There are lots of strikes due to the dreadful state of school equipment and materials, the disgusting classrooms and the lack of teachers. Often, the student strikes are organised as a show of support for the teachers, who strike over low salaries and lack of equipment.
The France 24 Observers team, based in Paris, contacted the Gabon Minister of Defence, Etienne Massard Kabinda Makaga, by telephone. He refused to respond to questions, saying, "The Ministry of Defence in Gabon does not respond to questions from individuals pretending to be journalists", and he would not listen to offers to prove the identity and profession of the journalist in question. He said that he had "nothing to hide", adding that he would be happy to meet with journalists from The Observers team in his office in Libreville.
Being exposed to tear gas can cause health problems in the short term: irritated airways, nausea, vomiting and chest pain. The long term side effects from exposure to tear gas can be worse: pregnant women risk their children being born with deformities.