The Atlantic Council Did Not Give a Global Citizen Award to Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba

The Atlantic Council Did Not Give a Global Citizen Award to Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba

A  Sept. 19 article on the Atlantic Council and its Global Citizen Awards, by Thor Halvorssen and Alex Gladstein, activists at a small non-profit called the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), was riddled with insinuations and unsubstantiated charges that misrepresented the Atlantic Council and its work. Foreign Policy has already corrected the original version due to factual errors both in the headline, stating that we had presented Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba with our award, which we hadn’t, and due to a charge that we don’t publicly list all our donors, which we do.

As the president and CEO of an organization that each day works to live up to its well-earned reputation for donor transparency and intellectual independence, I was disappointed that the authors ignored my on-record responses to some of their charges and, in my view, didn’t provide fair opportunity to respond to others. On that, I speak from experience as I spent 25 years as a senior editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal. So I will respond here:

Halvorssen and Gladstein present two arguments: one questions the Atlantic Council’s leadership in think-tank ethics and transparency, including insinuations that we received payments in nominating the Gabonese president for our 2016 Global Citizen Award (which he in any event did not receive); the second is that President Bongo is entirely undeserving of international recognition. The first claim is categorically false. The second also doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. 

The authors insinuated that a pay-to-play situation was at hand in our nomination of President Bongo for the award. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Atlantic Council receives no funding — and has no plans to receive funding — directly or indirectly from the Gabonese government. 

I told this to Halvorssen in an email sent on Sept. 17, and in a phone call with his chairman Garry Kasparov several days earlier. Yet the piece, with this irresponsible charge, ran two days later without any mention of my categorical denial. Even worse, the author knew he would be talking to me later in the week of publication when we would have had a chance to compare views and facts on Gabon. When I asked him in an email why he decided not to hold the piece, he said it would have served my agenda but not his to do so. Getting the facts right would seem to be the most important agenda for both sides.

The nomination of President Bongo came internally from the Atlantic Council staff and not from any donor of any sort. Contrary to the article’s insinuations, we received no contribution from any corporate or individual funder with investments or interests in Gabon in relationship to this award nomination or any work we do on Gabon. Suggesting otherwise without a shred of evidence, and with my statements on the record denying it, was irresponsible in the extreme.

We list all of our annual donors on our website and in our annual report, showing the approximate magnitude and the year of each gift. All government and government-related funding is further vetted by the Governance and Nominating Committee of our board, and we follow a strict intellectual independence policy regarding all of our work.  

It is worth noting that Human Rights Foundation (HRF), of which Halvorssen is president, does not reveal nearly as much about its own donors, which are listed alphabetically without any categories regarding the size or precise year of gifts. That said, we will not suggest here that any one of their donors influenced the position on Gabon or other issues. Their good work should not be impugned without substantiation, and neither should ours.  

The Atlantic Council is a recognized leader in think-tank transparency and ethics because we pay attention to such details. For the second year in a row, Charity Navigator, the premier organization that rates nonprofits across the United States, gave the Atlantic Council its coveted 4-star rating for our sound fiscal management and commitment to accountability and transparency.

On the second matter regarding President Bongo’s suitability for international recognition, fair-minded individuals can differ on that. But it is worth reviewing the logic behind his nomination, which includes international recognition President Bongo has received from the United Nations and others, and the wish to encourage the considerable progress his country has made from the heavy-handed rule of his father.

Months before he was up for reelection, President Bongo was nominated for the Atlantic Council’s Global Citizen Award, based on his widely celebrated commitment to preserving Africa’s wildlife and environment and his economic and infrastructure reforms. In recognition of these efforts, he was a recipient of the 2015 Sustainable Development Award by the U.N.’s specialized agency for information and communications technology. The same year, he was recognized by the International Conservation Caucus Foundation for leadership in the global fight against wildlife crime. 

President Bongo’s commitment to conservation is recognized around the world. He banned commercial fishing off coastal waters to establish an enormous marine protected area, covering nearly one-fourth of Gabon’s territorial waters — home to 20 species of whales and dolphins, four species of marine turtles (including the world’s largest breeding leatherback turtle population), and more than 20 species of sharks and rays (including threatened tiger sharks). He expanded the number of rangers and other employees in the national parks, which cover 11 percent of Gabon’s landmass, to 750 from 60, to fight illegal logging and poaching in some of the most pristine forests in the world.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who is co-chair of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, said while visiting Gabon in January, “Gabon has shown strong leadership in the region, and we support its progressive and ambitious vision for wildlife conservation and ecotourism while sustainably managing its natural resources.”  

In recent years, Gabon has been a key diplomatic partner for the United States on a number of issues. In 2011, President Bongo was the first African leader to publicly call for Muammar al-Qaddafi to step down in Libya. He helped the United States galvanize support among African countries for the Libya resolutions. Until Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was elected last year, Bongo was the only African president honored by President Obama with a stay at Blair House, and the White House placed him next to Obama at the state dinner during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in 2014. Earlier this year, Gabon hosted the largest ever U.S. Army exercise in Africa, providing training for militaries facing threats ranging from Boko Haram to al Shabab.

I won’t address here the litany of attacks on President Bongo in the Foreign Policy article. The arguments for and against him are a matter of public record — as are those for and against Jean Ping, his former brother-in-law and political opponent. The Atlantic Council has a consistent record of defending core Atlantic values. So, we too are concerned by allegations of electoral improprieties wherever they occur, while at the same time wishing to encourage progress where we find it.    

No doubt Gabon has far to go yet in terms of developing democracy and fighting corruption, but even on these issues progress has been made that the article neglects to mention, progress that should be encouraged and built upon. Ironically, Halvorssen and Gladstein include a link to an article that documents the advances during President Bongo’s tenure — that prosecutors appointed by him found corruption in the civil service and, as a result, the government fired some 800 employees. 

Last month, President Bongo was narrowly reelected in the contested presidential election against Jean Ping. (It is worth noting this is the same Jean Ping who, as chairperson of the African Union Commission, downplayed Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe’s campaign of violence that forced the opposition to withdraw from the run-off in that country’s 2008 election.) Following a spate of violent protests, Bongo agreed to an election recount and welcomed a delegation from the African Union to help resolve the political impasse. Both sides in the electoral dispute argued their case before the final arbiter of the contest, the Gabonese Constitutional Court, which ruled in favor of President Bongo.

After the ruling and his inauguration for a second term, President Bongo said he will “most likely” include opposition in the new government, a potential step in the right direction. 

As the Atlantic Council was weighing the facts and charges regarding the contested election and its aftermath, and determining whether to go ahead with its award, President Bongo precluded our process and informed the Atlantic Council that “my first obligation is to stay in Gabon” and that he would forego receiving the honor in order to attend to the overriding priorities in his country.

For President Bongo to receive the award in any future year, he would have to be renominated. In other words, he will be judged on his actions in the coming weeks, the same standard that will be set by the Gabonese people. In sum, the Foreign Policy article was about an honor that was not bestowed while suggesting financial transactions that never happened.

We wish the authors had taken the time to meet with us on these matters or that Foreign Policy editors had reached out to us for comment, which they never did.

The Atlantic Council and Human Rights Foundation want the same thing: to galvanize communities in common cause in the pursuit of human dignity and freedom. We hope that in the future, Thor Halvorssen and his colleagues will engage constructively on these issues rather than relying on falsehoods, insinuations, and unsubstantiated charges. 

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