EUGENE, Ore. – The University of Oregon’s research partnership with the African nation of Gabon is heralded as groundbreaking, but also means the university is entering a relationship with a nation troubled by accusations of electoral fraud and corruption.
The research partnership features mutual training of students from universities in Gabon and Oregon, as well as research collaboration on topics including ecotourism and environmental governance, the Eugene Register-Guard reports.
The agreement also means Transnational Research Centers will be established in Eugene and in the Gabonese capital of Libreville. The centers will promote research, internships and study-abroad placements.
“Gabon’s emergence requires the establishment of a world-class system of education,” said Gabonese president Ali Bongo. “This unique cooperative agreement will enable us to address our urgent educational needs and also modernize our universities and research centers.”
The son of Gabon’s late dictator, who ruled for 41 years until his death in 2009, Bongo won a contested presidential election a few months later that many observers said was flawed, even fraudulent, and triggered widespread violence.
After his election, Bongo set out to reduce corruption by streamlining the government. He eliminated numerous government positions and reorganized government ministries and bureaus.
Oregon associate professor Dennis Galvan said the regime of Bongo’s father was marked by human rights and corruption issues. But Galvan says Bongo is committed to good governance, democracy and addressing the needs of the poor.
“What we’re seeing so far in terms of good governance, ending corruption and sustainable and equitable development … are very promising,” said Galvan, who led the development of the Gabon proposal this spring. “(Gabon) is trying to make a very significant turn and this is not the time to turn our back on a very promising partner.”
On Thursday, President Barack Obama urged Bongo to help expose corruption and reform the judiciary and other vital institutions in Gabon to protect human rights.
The oil-rich nation holds the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council. Bongo insists that his government has strong institutions and is building a democratic system.
“It is imperfect, but it is headed in the right direction,” he said last week. “We are fighting corruption and all illegal activities and building a culture of transparency and ethical governance.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration will continue to push Bongo to make additional progress on human rights issues.
The partnership, say University of Oregon officials, will help Gabon as it attempts to move quickly from its dying oil-based economy toward sustainable natural resource management, ecotourism and investments in education.
Bongo indicated as much, saying his main concern is diversifying the economy so that the 1.5 million Gabonese people don’t one day “wake up and there’s no more oil.”