Libreville, GABON — On July 17, Argentine football superstar and children's rights advocate Lionel Messi visited Gabon to endorse and celebrate Ali Bongo, a dictator who has ruled the African country after succeeding his father Omar Bongo in 2009.
Messi has denied reports that he was paid 3.5 million euros by the Bongo family for the visit, but displayed enthusiastic support for the dictatorship during his trip. The Bongo family has exerted complete control over Gabonese politics, economics, and society since 1967. The Bongos have used Gabon as their feudal state for decades, systematically looting the country's vast natural resources, oil wealth, and rainforests.
“In providing PR services to Gabon's Bongo family, Lionel Messi has seriously undermined the credibility of his own charitable foundation,” said Human Rights Foundation president Thor Halvorssen. "Whereas Messi claims to support children's rights, and even serves as a UNICEF ambassador to promote youth education, he has endorsed a kleptocratic regime that refuses to investigate the ritual murder of children in Gabon,” said Halvorssen.
In a phenomenon well-documented by local media and civil society groups, each year children in Gabon are murdered and their organs are harvested for human consumption. These crimes go unsolved, and reportedly increase during election years. Local activists have accused the Bongo government of being behind the murders. Leading rights advocate and Brainforest founder Marc Ona Essangui alleges that politicians eat the eyes, lips, and sexual parts of child victims to increase their power.
Messi's visit was broadcast by Gabonese state television and used as internal propaganda by the dictatorship. A series of photos and updates were also shared online. Messi's junket included a visit to a state-owned hospital and an inauguration event for a restaurant owned by the dictator's family.
"Messi's trip is part of the Bongo family's PR campaign to promote the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, which Gabon will host at enormous expense despite the fact that the Bongo family's embezzlement has left 20% of the population to live on less than $2 per day," said Halvorssen.
The ruling Bongo family is notorious for treating the national treasury like a private bank account, skimming off as much as 25% of the nation’s GDP for their personal use. The government is built on a "mafia-like" network of corruption, where thousands of fake civil servants receive salaries despite not having official jobs. HRF considers Gabon one of the world's most repressive and corrupt regimes. Despite having a per capita income four times that of most sub-Saharan African nations, a third of the population suffers under the poverty line.
Ali and family own more than three dozen luxury homes abroad—some worth as much as 100 million euros—and boast a fleet of more than 100 exotic cars including Ferraris, Bentleys, and customized Rolls Royces. Their embezzlement ring, which has been investigated by the French government, extends to 70 bank accounts, yachts, private planes, and a massive fine art collection. Documents obtained by the French press reveal that the Bongos spent $86 million on one private Swiss travel company alone.
HRF has previously publicized similar celebrity endorsements of dictators ranging from Hilary Swank’s disastrous celebration of Chechen despot Ramzan Kadyrov to Erykah Badu's helicopter visit to Swaziland, where she sang for the country's absolute monarch.
“It’s shocking, given the recent public humiliation endured by Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, and Kanye West, that Messi's management and the athlete himself would consider putting his prestige at the service of a serial human rights abuser,” said HRF Chief Strategy Officer Alex Gladstein. “If Messi wants to do good in Gabon, HRF recommends that rather than partying with oppressors, he release a statement in solidarity with the country’s persecuted dissidents and environmentalists, and press the regime to investigate the ritual murders of children,” said Gladstein.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies.
Contact: Jamie Hancock, (212) 246-8486, firstname.lastname@example.org