At 7:00PM on 29 September 2015, I was free to go home after serving 83 days in a Gabonese prison cell, constructed in 1965 for four hundred inmates, which today houses over two thousand — many of them languishing without charge, without legal representation and without the hope of one day being liberated. I came to know many inmates who were incarcerated years after having served their sentence as specified by the courts. To be sure, I was one of the few lucky ones. For months my friends and family, as well as several international organizations, labeled me a prisoner of conscience — due to my activism and criticism of the government — and pressured authorities to release me. I was officially charged at the time with what can be translated as “outrage to the president” — an entirely bogus charge meant to stifle legitimate criticism.
Though I was overwhelmed with emotion and eager to leave the prison grounds, I was filled with sadness for the inmates I had left behind, those who had become friends during my detention. The “living conditions,” if one could venture to call them that, were truly intolerable. No drinking water was available. The thousands of inmates detained with me were given raw food to cook themselves. And the rodent-infested complex did not have a medical doctor on hand, a nurse nor a pharmacy. To my knowledge, the situation remains as grave today as it did then with no reforms on the horizon.
That day, in 2015, with tears in my eyes, I said goodbye and shook the hands of every single one of those I would be leaving. I told them, that as a high-profile athlete and public figure, God had allowed me to experience this injustice for a reason. I promised each of them that I would use my voice and my platform to inform the world about the miserable conditions in Gabon’s prisons — many of them filled with prisoners of conscience like myself — and the violations of human rights and human dignity that take place across the country. In many respects, due to governmental repression, Gabon has indeed become an open prison for many of my fellow citizens. That our country has been ruled by the same family since 1967 has made a mockery of our constitution and to our founding democratic principles.
To this day, I still have nightmares and experience flashbacks of my time incarcerated. That place to me is Hell on earth. Just imagine thirty inmates living in a squalid cell that is meant to hold, at most, six people. No mattresses, no cooling fan and no access to hygiene. On top of all these indignities, we had to endure daily abuses and violence from correction officers.
Reforming Gabon’s justice system — and the prison cells that hold those unfairly charged, detained and imprisoned — is not a priority for the current regime. To be fair, it’s difficult to determine the government’s priorities these days, for the president has only visited the country two times over the past five months. Nevertheless, the preamble to our constitution states that government will: “affirm solemnly its attachment to human rights and to fundamental liberties that result from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789 and from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, consecrated by the African Charter of the Rights of Man and the Rights of Peoples of 1981, and by the National Charter of Liberties of 1990.” These pledges exist in text only. They are not practiced nor otherwise respected by those in power.
I cannot end my story here without highlighting another specific injustice ongoing to this day: two American-Gabonese citizens, Bertrand Nzibi and Amiang Washington, have been wrongly jailed since 2016. Their only crimes were to exercise free speech by criticizing the government, and to belong to an opposition political party. Both men have reportedly been tortured, held incommunicado and in solitary confinement, and denied access to their lawyers. While the US Government recently called attention to Gabon’s reprehensible record on human trafficking and child labor, so much more needs to be done to hold the ruling Bongo regime accountable for the myriad human rights abuses being committed on their watch.
Concerned citizens, including leaders in the U.S., can help the situation in my country by loudly calling out the regime for its excesses and transgressions. Abusive leaders like Ali Bongo, and the coterie around him, grow strength in the darkness (and with the power of their lobbyists in Washington, DC). Let’s peel back these layers of abuse, and with them, the facade of the Bongo dictatorship. My former cellmates, Gabon’s civic and political activists, and our depleted human rights community need all the help we can get.
Christian Nkombengnondo is a graduate of Stratford University and leading member of Gabonese Diaspora for Democracy and Human Rights, a nonprofit group that engages in public advocacy and leads charitable actions to empower the citizens of Gabon. He is a world class athlete, winning Gabon’s Taekwondo National Championship three times and is a graduate of Stratford University.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of Vanguard Africa or the Vanguard Africa Foundation.