JTA / June 16, 2010
By Larry Luxner
MALABO, Equatorial Guinea — On a barren, 25-hectare tract of land overlooking the Gulf of Guinea, bulldozer operators turn the earth as sweaty construction workers take a lunch break in the shadow of an improvised Zim shipping container.
Inside an air-conditioned trailer nearby, Tel Aviv native Zvi Blum sits at his desk, under a colorful poster showing how Malabo’s evolving Centro Medico La Paz will look roughly one year from now.
“This is going to be the best hospital in Africa. They’ve never seen anything like it before,” Blum proudly tells JTA, as he describes a campus boasting a 155-bed hospital, doctors’ residences, a 50-room hotel for guests, a pharmacy, a heliport, landscaping and a beautiful fountain at the entrance. Total investment: $100 million.
“We’re importing all the materials from Israel, from concrete to ceramics,” says Blum, whose last job was helping build the new passenger terminal at Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport. Now, he’s project director of International Medical Services GE S.A. “The government [of Equatorial Guinea] is paying for everything.”
Not surprising, considering this tiny Maryland-sized nation of around 800,000 inhabitants — awash in petroleum dollars — has already financed the construction of an Israeli-run hospital in Bata, the main city in the continental part of Equatorial Guinea. That facility employs more than 100 Israeli doctors and nurses.
An unknown number of Israeli advisers also provide military training to Equatoguinean soldiers guarding their Spanish-speaking nation’s remote borders with French-speaking Cameroon and Gabon.
In fact, Israel’s growing involvement has gone largely unnoticed in Central Africa, many of whose countries this year are celebrating half a century of independence.
At a lavish 50th anniversary state dinner held May 19 in the Cameroonian capital of Yaoundé, dozens of foreign dignitaries joined Prime Minister Philémon Yang in paying tribute to one of Africa’s long-ruling heads of state, Cameroon’s President Paul Biya.
One of those in attendance was Jack Rosen, head of the American Jewish Congress and president of the American Council for World Jewry. In between schmoozing with Yang and visiting Gabonese President Ali Bongo, the visiting New Yorker told JTA why he was in Cameroon — a poor, tropical country of 20 million with not a single native Jew.
“Africa is important to us for a number of reasons,” he explained. “Currently, three members of the UN Security Council are from Africa: Gabon, Uganda and Nigeria. At the UN, their votes are critical in such things as sanctions against Iran.”
On Jun. 9, all three countries voted to support the sanctions; behind-the-scenes lobbying by AJC and other Jewish groups undoubtedly played a key role in those votes.
Rosen said his interest in Africa was initially piqued by Rep. Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat and member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“Charlie suggested it was time for the Jewish community to be more supportive of assistance for Africa. I was reminded that the black caucus had supported the Jewish community on Israeli causes,” he said.
“Also, Iran has been investing heavily in the region, and there’s a struggle going on right now for influence. We know about Sudan, but we also see the increasing influence of Hezbollah in countries like Cote d’Ivoire. It’s important for the American Jewish community to play a role in African affairs and try to get them to support our causes,” Rosen said. “Not only that, the Israelis have done substantial trade with Africa over the years. They can provide these countries with resources and technology in areas that are important to them, like agriculture and military training.”
Miki Arbel, Israel’s ambassador to Cameroon, said that back in the 1960s and early 1970s, his country had excellent relations with all of sub-Saharan Africa. But that was before the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when under Arab pressure virtually all African states severed ties with Israel.
Yet Cameroon was one of the first — if not the first — African states to resume diplomatic relations with Israel in 1984. Other neighboring countries followed — Burkina Faso, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Central African Republic — though Chad and Niger have yet to do so.
“This 50th anniversary celebration is not only for Cameroon; it involves lots of other countries as well,” said the diplomat. “But Cameroon is a pivotal country in Central Africa, and it has a long sustained and stable relationship with the West.”
Arbel, interviewed at his residence on the outskirts of Yaoundé, knows a thing or two about strained relations. Last year, while serving as Israel’s ambassador to Mauritania, he was kicked out of that North African country after the Arab League, meeting in Qatar, decided to freeze all relationships with Israel following the Gaza invasion.
“I intend to help the people of Cameroon in many ways,” said the diplomat, an agronomist by training who arrived in Yaoundé nearly seven months ago. “But the most important is to help them in what we’re good at: irrigation methods and water management. They don’t know how to cultivate and what to cultivate. But if we teach them and share with them the knowledge we have acquired in Israel over the past 60 years, then they can generate more crops from their piece of land.”
At present, Israeli experts teach courses on irrigation throughout Cameroon, with a focus on Bamenda in the particularly arid Northwest province.
Israel’s bilateral trades with Cameroon comes to under $15 million. Consisting mostly of imports of semi-processed wood and exports of heavy machinery and irrigation equipment. Some Israeli firms have invested in the booming telecom sector, while others have contracted out their expertise in security and weapons training.
“Cameroon has very long borders. Nigeria is not an enemy, but in the Central African Republic and Chad you have rebels who cross borders and kick out the villagers, so the government has a responsibility to protect its citizens,” Arbel said, praising the “excellent cooperation” among French, American and Israeli military advisers there.
He added: “The Cameroonians understand one thing: that the conflict in the Middle East is not only an Israeli problem. They know that conflicts should be solved by direct negotiations, not by war. The African Union is controlled by big countries — South Africa, Nigeria and Libya — and these are not necessarily the best friends of Israel. But politics is politics, and the politics of Cameroon is not to be against Israel.