Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba sets his sights on 2023

By Marwane Ben Yahmed
Posted on Wednesday, 16 March 2022 15:38

Ali Bongo in Libreville, 12 March 2022. © Gabon Presidency

The approach was nothing new. However, a firm decision had been made. On 12 March at 10:30 am, Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba made his way to the podium in Libreville’s Botanical Garden. He was greeted by a huge crowd, something that had not been seen since before Covid. Nearly 8,000 people waved Gabonese flags and chanted “Ali, Ali, Ali!” The atmosphere was electric.

It had been four years since the head of state had last addressed the activists of the Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG) in person. This Saturday, on the 54th convention of the party formed by the late president Omar Bongo Ondimba on 12 March 1969, Ali Bongo Ondimba reconnected with his past.

Physical consequences

In October 2018, while attending an international forum in Riyadh, Ondimba suffered a stroke. Physically, the effects are still visible. The President now walks with a cane and talks slightly slower. But intellectually, “the machine works just as well as before. He has recovered his level of English. He’s expressing himself perfectly,” says environment minister Lee White, who is of Scottish origin.

According to those close to Ondimba, the big difference is that he is more determined than ever. It is as if he is trying to make up for lost time. “The pace of work has quickened,” says one of his colleagues. “The President is demanding more from us. He expects more and quicker results.”

The Covid-19 pandemic also partly explains the need to speed things up almost a year and a half before the next presidential election. In March 2020, Gabon sounded the alarm. As soon as the first Covid-19 cases appeared, the country closed its borders and introduced a curfew. On 10 March 2022, almost two years to the day after the first cases appeared in Gabon, Ondimba announced on radio and television that all anti-Covid measures, from curfews to wearing masks outdoors, were lifted.

In the meantime, the measures paid off. “One of the best on the continent,” says an epidemiologist. Gabon is one of the African countries with the lowest number of virus-related deaths, as well as the highest recovery and vaccination rates – around 30% of the population.

Back to the Botanical Gardens on 12 March. Now that he has recovered from his stroke, Ondimba has set his sights on the future again. He addressed the crowd of his supporters: “2023 is fast approaching. I will be there with you. For you.” He added: “The only way out [must be] through victory. A frank, clear, indisputable victory.”

These words clearly demonstrate his desire to run again. They also echo what he told the country on 31 December. “In 2021, just like in previous years, I have always been there for you all. I will be there again in 2022 and beyond,” he said.

Someone close to him says: “He made his decision in 2019 after he had completed his convalescence.” The most visible sign of this is the fact that he has replaced some members of his entourage. “His main flaw is trust. People often abuse it,” says a member of Ondimba’s extended family.

Clearly, the President has learned from the past. He sacked the once all-powerful and criticised Maixent Accrombessi from the presidential palace. His successor, Brice Laccruche Alihanga, has been imprisoned. He is due to appear in court soon on charges of corruption and embezzlement. Ondimba has called for a new, younger and – many Gabonese hope – more honest team.

Inevitable

At the head of the team is his eldest son, Noureddin Bongo Valentin, a person he trusts a lot, along with his wife Sylvia. There are also other less well-known names, such as Jessye Ella Ekogha, the presidential couple’s spokesman and trusted ally, Saliou Mohamed Ali, the deputy director of the presidential cabinet, and Ian Ghislain Ngoulou, the influential director of Noureddin’s office.

The same goes for the government. In 2019, Ondimba appointed a woman – a first in Gabon – prime minister. He chose Christiane Ossouka Raponda for this position because, as he told several visitors, he admires her “efficiency, loyalty and integrity”. He also placed some people who are close to him on his government team, such as Pacome Moubelet Boubeya, who just moved from foreign affairs to industry, and Michaël Moussa Adamo, a former defence minister, who moved to foreign affairs. The President is also counting on some of the pillars of his 2016 campaign: interior minister Lambert-Noël Matha and Alain-Claude Bilie-By-Nze, the government spokesman.

The party also underwent some changes. On 9 March, the day after the government reshuffle, it appointed a new secretary-general. The apparatchik Eric-Dodo Bounguendza was replaced by Steeve Nzegho Dieko, who was presented as “one of the country’s most brilliant academics”.

Ondimba is recasting the presidential, government and PDG team that he will lead to battle in 2023. As a result, many Odimba allies are now starting to call for a “knockout blow”, a victory in the first round of the vote. A PDG member argues that this scenario should not “be ruled out”. It could even be “likely”: “The PDG won a landslide victory at the local elections and, more importantly, October 2018 legislatives, with more than 120 deputies out of 143,” the source says.

The party is also feeling confident because of the state of the opposition. In the grip of leadership disputes, it is now divided.

Firstly, there is Jean Ping, the sole opposition candidate in the 2016 presidential election, who dreams of taking revenge. However, at 80, the head of the Coalition pour la Nouvelle République (CNR) is in the twilight years of his political career. His strategy of boycotting the 2018 elections proved catastrophic for his camp, and he has lost support.

One by one, his main supporters have been leaving him to join the PDG. This is the case for Frédéric Massavala, appointed PDG spokesman, René Ndemezo’o Obiang, who was promoted to the presidency of the Conseil Economique, Social et Environnemental, the voluble Féfé Onanga and former prime minister Jean Eyeghe Ndong. Guy Nzouba-Ndama, the president of the Démocrates, could be next on the list. In the meantime, a close friend of Ping despondently admits that “it’s a real bloodbath.”

To remain in the headlines, Ping is making more and more sensational declarations. When interviewed by France 24 at the end of February, Ping mentioned the possibility of a “civil war” and called for the head of state to be removed from power “by any means necessary”. An adviser to Ondimba said these comments were “irresponsible and dangerous”.

Jean Ping wants to die on the political stage

These comments obviously do not help the opposition’s cause and encourage it to turn the page on Ping even faster. “Like all great political leaders, Jean Ping wants to die on the political stage. But our interest today lies in looking forward. Rebuild ourselves. And build the future,” says a member of the opposition group Appel à Agir, which has campaigned, in vain, for the authorities to declare that Ondimba is unfit to remain president.

Many oppositionists are looking for a chance to take centre stage. This is the case for both Alexandre Barro-Chambrier, president of the Rassemblement pour la Patrie et la Modernité (RPM), Charles Mba, a former finance minister and a member of the Union Nationale, and the collective Appel à Agir, which intends to embody “a new generation” of oppositionists who replace “tired old barons”.

Who would have thought it? Despite his disputed victory in 2016 and his stroke in 2018, Ondimba is well positioned ahead of the 2023 presidential election. He knows, however, that the Gabonese expect more and better from his government. When it comes down to it, it is his record that will tip the balance one way or the other. Time is running out to make a difference.

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