Jean Ping, a Gabonese politician, is a well-known African diplomat who currently holds the position of Chairman of the Commission of the African Union. My interest in writing about him is because he is a person of mixed race; although his political career alongside Omar Bongo, the world’s longest serving non-Monarch ruler is also fascinating.
Jean Ping was born on November 24th 1942 in the village of Omboué, south of Port-Gentil , to a Gabonese mother, the daughter of a local leader, and a Chinese father, Cheng Zhiping. Cheng Zhiping was from the port city of Wenzhou, China. Wenzhou’s eastern coast looks out to the East China Sea and the city boasts successful emigrant communities which made their fortunes in business in Europe and the United States. Wenzhou was one of the few ports that remained under Chinese control during the Second Sino-Japanese War which began in 1937.
The most I have been able to learn about Jean Ping’s Chinese father has been from a badly translated 2010 article originally written by Wang Qin, a Chinese diplomat in Africa, for the Chinese Online Magazine, Africa Magazine that states that its aim is to get its Chinese readers to know and love Africa. It is unclear when Cheng Zhiping settled in West Africa. According to Wang Qin, it was in the late 1930s but according to Wikipedia it was the 1920s. Cheng Zhiping came as a labourer but soon became a merchant, selling wood, Chinaware, and seafood. He also ran a bakery. According to Wang Qin, when Jean was a month old, his father took him to be baptized in order to respect his Christian Gabonese mother’s wishes. It was also his father who named him Jean. His father sent Jean Ping to be educated in France. Jean Ping would eventually receive a doctorate in economics from the University of Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne).
Jean Ping’s political career inside and outside Gabon has been charmed. In 1972, began working for UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). In 1978, he became Gabon’s Permanent Delegate to UNESCO until 1984. Subsequently, he became President of the Civil Cabinet of Omar Bongo, a position in which he served until 1990. According to Africa Confidential, it was this period that was pivotal for his career: “The career of Gabon’s consummate diplomat owes its success less to the impact he made as President of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2004-05 than his accomplishments as head of cabinet to the country’s veteran President, El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba in 1984-90.”
Ping’s connection with Bongo goes beyond politics. Jean Ping had a romantic relationship with Omar Bongo’s daugther, Pascaline, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, despite being married to another woman who he had no intention of divorcing. Ping and Pascaline had two children together while working side by side in Bongo’s Cabinet. Ping took over from Pascaline as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1994, when she became the Director of the Presidential Cabinet. Pascaline eventually married another Gabonese politician in 1995. Ping would hold the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs for nine years. In 2002, Jean Ping wrote the book “Mondialisation, Paix, Démocratie et Développent: l’expérience du Gabon, published by Editions de l’Harmattan.
In 2004, Jean Ping was elected as the 59th President of the United Nations General Assembly.
As Foreign Minister since 1999, he has led Gabon’s campaign to open up trade with non-traditional partners including China, Brazil and South Africa. Ping is uncritical of the Chinese, who signed a controversial US$3 billion iron ore-backed deal for the development of the Bélinga deposit in northeastern Gabon in 2006, saying: ‘With China, everything is simple. She gives us debt forgiveness or long-term loans without interest or conditions.’
Jean Ping would eventually visit his father’s town of Wenzhou in 1987. According to Wang Qin:
When Jean Ping first returned his hometown, the people there welcomed him heatedly just like they were celebrating a festival. The most exciting was to see his ninety-four-years-old aunt. One of his cousin even excitedly said it was unimaginable to have such a black and great cousin. They were filled with the happiness of family reunion. Even though they could not understand what each other said, their hearts were together.
The following are excerpts from an interview with Jean Ping discussing the role of the African Union in economic development and peace-keeping:
You have talked about regional integration as a priority for the African Union. How do you explain why trade among African countries accounts for less than 10 percent of the continent’s total imports and exports?
I think that this is due to lack of infrastructure. You need roads and railways; otherwise you can’t provide goods among yourselves. It is not easy. In the SADC [Southern African Development Community] region, the 15 member countries have succeeded in creating a free zone for about 170 million inhabitants, [built around] the economic strength of South Africa, which produces goods, not just raw materials.
It would be good for the rest of the continent to sell to each other, but you need infrastructure and a common market. We now have a market of one billion inhabitants. But, unfortunately, 165 borders divide the continent into 53 countries. Some of these [places] have less than half a million people. Progress has been slow, but progress has been made and things are moving faster, especially in two sub-regions – SADC and ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States]. ECOWAS has the same land area and population size – about 390 million inhabitants – as Europe, but a smaller economy. The first step is regional, and then you move to the continental market. The key is taking down barriers to foster economic growth.
Is there a danger that integration could exacerbate other problems? There have been, for example, outbreaks of xenophobia in countries as disparate as South Africa and Ghana.
We can’t wait. We have some obstacles but can you imagine a project like that without obstacles? One of the big problems has been sovereignty – the principal of non-interference in internal affairs. Our charter, which has been ratified by all 53 countries, says clearly that in the case of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, we have the duty to interfere, immediately, without asking permission [from] anybody.
Africa is probably the only continent in the world that has codified that principle. This gives us the right to go into Somalia, the right to send an army to The Comoros and re-establish a constitutional government on the island of Anjouan by force. But you use force when you have no other means. You have to try all the other means and, if you can’t succeed, think about using force. Using force is not something, which can be routine.
Conflict resolution and peacekeeping are central to the mission of the African Union. How would you measure progress in that area?
We have moved a lot from 15 or 20 years ago. In 1996, the continent was confronted with more than 15 conflicts responsible for half of the deaths caused by war in the whole world. Half of them! Recall the situations in Liberia; Sierra Leone; the Democratic Republic of Congo, where ten countries were fighting inside one country; the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Many countries in the north of Africa were confronted with terrorism – Algeria, Egypt. The continent was in blood. But mainly Africans themselves have resolved these conflicts. We still have the problem of consolidation of peace, because countries like Liberia are vulnerable, Congo has not yet achieved peace in the eastern part. And we still have two remaining conflicts: Darfur and Somalia.
In Somalia, the AU has the primary peacekeeping responsibility. What are the prospects for ending the war there?
This is the only country in the world with no government and no institutions for 18 years. The country is no longer a country. The terrorists are doing everything that is forbidden, including piracy. It is not acceptable. A few years ago, [people might have said]: ‘This is happening in Africa; I’m not concerned’. But then the piracy happened. Somalia became a threat to world peace, a threat to the world economy. All these warships went to that region. But pirates were not born in the ocean and they don’t live there. They come from Somalia. If you want sustainable peace you have to go where they come from, which is on the land.
This is a collective responsibility. The United Nations belongs to all of us. Of the 192 [member] countries, 53 are African. But when we asked the Security Council to go there they don’t agree. Some said that there is no peace to keep in Somalia, which means we have to bring peace first, and then they would come to keep the peace. We are alone there. We are maintaining the security of the transitional government of Sheik Sharif Ahmed. We protect them according to the mandate that we have received. But Somalia should be a state like all others [with] their own government. They should maintain their own peace. To do that we’re training their security forces, about 10,000 troops.
How many peacekeepers does the AU have in Somalia?
Today we have 5,200 troops. We plan to have 8,000. But we are not going to be there forever, so we train, equip and pay [the Somalis]. There is an embargo on armaments, so we’re asking for a lift on the embargo for government troops. There is a road map.
In Darfur, the AU is working alongside the United Nations. How is that progressing?
In the beginning, when the conflict started, we sent our troops alone, like in Somalia. It was called AMIS, the African Mission to Sudan. It was a very difficult time. Some of our troops died, so we called on the UN to be there. They accepted to come to Darfur and we have a joint mission, a hybrid operation. It is the biggest operation ever organized by the UN. When we reach full force, it would be 26,000. Let me tell you that 95 or 96 per cent of troops there are Africans. None are from western countries. The commander is Rwandese. Rwanda has four battalions there, and Nigeria has four battalions. It’s an African component trying to bring peace to Darfur.
Today, there are no more killings, really, which means that we are moving in the right direction.
The AU is now using the term ‘low intensity fighting’ to describe the situation in Darfur. But many NGOs working there take issue with that characterization and say the conflict is still serious. In Darfur, the NGOs [are now] an industry. So you can understand that, sometimes, maybe people want to stay there. I am sorry to say it as [plain] as that. But it should be clear enough that you have four main issues in Darfur. In the African Union, we take them in a holistic manner – all of them. The NGOs consider justice here, peace there. There is a problem of security and we have UNAMID [the African Union/United Nations Hybrid operation in Darfur] to bring peace. But since the civil war there is a need for reconciliation. It is not the army that will solve the problem; it is dialogue and reconciliation among the population. It is not only to stop war or to give food to refugee camps, but to solve the root causes of the war and we have a political joint mediator working there
AU President Jean Ping went back to hometown, Wenzhou, for many times by Wang Qin (2010 article translated from Chinese for Africa Magazine available online)
Jean Ping’s Profile from Africa Confidential available online
Excerpts from an interview with Jean Ping available online