The 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul this spring gave Gabon the opportunity to reinforce relationships with key economic powers South Korea and Australia and to learn from their expertise in the fields of mining and oil.
President Ali Bongo Ondimba was one of 52 world leaders to converge on Seoul, South Korea, for the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit on March 26-27, conceived to reinforce nuclear security in an age threatened by terrorism.
Addressing heads of state, including US President Barack Obama (who launched the summit in 2010), UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and China’s leader Hu Jintao, the Gabonese president spoke of the danger posed not only by nuclear weapons but by radioactive substances at nuclear stations, referring to the accident at a plant in Fukushima, Japan, last year caused by an earthquake.
The world is experiencing “a historical paradox” concerning nuclear technology today, said the President. “The probability of nuclear warfare has decreased whereas the threat of nuclear terrorism has grown and worries us greatly now. We must reiterate our willingness to put in place Washington’s policies, including rules to ensure the protection of nuclear and radioactive materials.”
A member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since 1964, Gabon is committed to the use of nuclear science that ”opens up real possibilities for the development and industrialisation of our countries,” President Bongo told delegates in the Korean capital, but only for peaceful means.
Gabon signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1972, and in 2010 passed a bill allowing for the creation of the Gabonese Agency on Safety and Nuclear Security (AGSSN). Further afield, Africa has drawn up its own nuclear treaty, Pelindaba, with the aim of making the continent a nuclear weapon-free zone, President Bongo reminded the international community, calling for more support for the continent and closer collaboration between African states and the IAEA.
The Gabonese leader combined his trip with a visit to the industrial city of Ulsan in south-east Korea, home to the world’s largest oil refinery, run by SK Energy, with whom Gabon has signed a memorandum
of understanding (bilateral agreement) worth $1 billion (€765 million) to build an oil refinery at the Ile Mandji industrial zone near Port-Gentil.
The technology used by SK Energy – part of the Korean conglomerate SK Group – is impressive; the site has an output of one million barrels a day, enough to sustain the whole of South Korea. If the deal goes ahead, the new refinery (which replaces the Gabonese oil refinery SOGARA) will produce 50,000 barrels a day, up from 21,000, half of which will be for export and the rest for the domestic market.
Tipped to be the world’s largest producer of manganese by 2015, Gabon is on the lookout for investment partners and valuable know-how to develop the activity. Australia, with its strong mining sector and enviable port infrastructure, was therefore a logical stop for a state visit after Korea.
Accompanied by his wife Sylvia and a delegation of Gabonese ministers, President Bongo visited key sites operated by the mining giant BHP Billiton, which is already present in South Africa, Mozambique, Algeria and Angola, and has been in talks about exploiting iron ore in Gabon at the Belinga concession.
Lessons in expertise
They also met members of the Australian African Business Council in the mining capital of Perth and visited the city’s University of Western Australia (UWA), which has a prominent natural resources
faculty that could provide inspiration and support for industry training in Gabon.
“We came here to share and to learn. Australian businesses are regarded as international authorities in several sectors,” said President Bongo, adding that he was “very confident” of Gabon’s partnership with Australia in the future.
An Australian presence in Gabon would represent a significant long-term investment in the country. Australian mining firms – already adept at extracting manganese, gold, diamonds, iron and copper at home – are present in 42 African countries, representing a current and projected investment of US$25
“We are asking Australian companies to help us to develop our mining sector. Gabon is a prime destination, open to all investors in the mining and infrastructure sectors,” said Mines Minister Régis
After meeting Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who in a statement praised the “growing friendship” between the two countries, President Bongo and his delegation stopped off at Murdoch University to discuss food security and agriculture production, and then had a tour of the port of Sydney.
The city handles around US$2.5 billion (€1.9b) in maritime traffic each year and is an important model for Gabon as it moves to develop its own ports at Owendo and Port-Gentil and to build a deepwater seaport at Mayumba.
For her part, the First Lady, keen to build on the work of her charitable foundation which helps women and children, visited Ewha Woman’s University in Korea and made valuable connections with Kim Kum-lae, Korean Minister of Gender Equality and Family, and Penny Williams, Australia’s Global Ambassador for Women and Girls.