GABON

France 24 Observer Ballack Obame arrested in Gabon

Students at Omar Bongo University in Libreville, Gabon, have been protesting for better conditions for several years. This protest recently moved from the campus to the courthouse. Last week, after protesting against the postponement of the verdict in the case of two of their imprisoned classmates, several students were arrested – including our Observer, Edvin Ballack Obame.

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Our Observer in a May 2013 Observers Direct report on tensions at Omar Bongo University.

Students at Omar Bongo University in Libreville, Gabon, have been protesting for better conditions for several years. This protest recently moved from the campus to the courthouse. Last week, after protesting against the postponement of the verdict in the case of two of their imprisoned classmates, several students were arrested – including our Observer, Edvin Ballack Obame.

Obame described the tensions at his university in several articles on the France 24 Observers site, and participated in our Observers Direct TV report on the subject in May 2013. At the time, protesting students were asking for scholarships to be paid and for better living and studying conditions. Now, however, their main demand is freedom for Firmin Ollo Obiang and Célestin Mitong Mitong, two student protesters who have been in prison since July for “collective destruction of public infrastructure at the university”. Their fate was to be decided last Wednesday, but the trial was postponed. Violent protests followed.

“The authorities are worried students will participate in opposition protests and provoke violence”

Mahmat Yaya studied law at Omar Bongo University before getting expelled six months ago. He believes this is because he took part in student protests.

About 200 students, including myself, were in the courtroom when it was announced that the verdict was postponed. Tensions quickly flared and clashes broke out between students and guards. Due to this, the prosecutor asked for the arrest of the student union’s leader. The rest of the students returned to campus and decided to barricade the entrance to the university. This resulted in clashes with the police, during which about 20 students were arrested.

According to Gabon’s state television, the students were responsible for the violence. The state’s prosecutor, interviewed in the report below, said that the courthouse had been invaded by students “who were chanting, throwing punches and walking on the benches”.

Yaya continues:

The next day, we held a press conference to announce that we would block the campus’ entrance until our student union’s president was freed. In the afternoon, Edvin received a phone call from the union’s president, saying he urgently needed him to come to the security authority’s offices (the “DSG”) where he was being held. Edvin went there, and later in the day, we learned that he too was being detained.

It’s possible that his arrest was preventive: Edvin did not hide the fact that he planned on taking part in a big opposition protest on Saturday. The authorities may have been worried that he would get lots of other students to come with him. They see students as potentially violent protesters.

The students’ union and all student protesters are suspected of backing the opposition, but I want to insist on the fact that we are politically neutral; our union never takes part in opposition rallies or meetings. That doesn’t mean that individual students don’t participate. But personally, I don’t take part in opposition protests.

We don’t have any news from Edvin but I’m certain he is being held in awful conditions. The DSG’s cells are tiny and very dirty.

Other students claim that Obame is in ill health, but France 24 has been unable to verify this rumour. We have asked the authorities about this, and are awaiting their response. None of his friends, nor his parents nor lawyers, have been able to talk to Obame since his arrest. 

They have, however, explained why Obame was arrested. The state’s prosecutor sent us a statement that claims that Obame struck courthouse guards, and later instructed other members of the student union to “break everything” on campus in protest of his two classmates’ continued imprisonment. Moreover, the prosecutor noted that on Thursday, December 18, a university building was set on fire, and cars on the campus were attacked; however, she did not specify whether Obame was accused of participating in these incidents.

Article by France 24 journalist Corentin Bainier (@cbainier).