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Who Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba took on campaign trail

By Jeune Afrique

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Posted on August 24, 2023 14:52

The head of state, who has been in power since 2009, was campaigning intensely ahead of Saturday’s three simultaneous elections – including the presidential election, for which 19 candidates are in the running.

Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba (ABO) made the most of his traditional annual speech on 16 August, the eve of the bank holidays, as well as the three days of celebration marking the 63rd anniversary of the country’s independence.

With his sights firmly set on re-election for him and his party, the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), this month, he announced a 25% reduction in school fees, free textbooks at the start of the new school year, the installation of 4,000 streetlights in the capital Libreville and the opening of a bypass around the city.

For several months now, ABO has been on a “Republican tour”. Although it started before he formally announced his candidacy, he had all the hallmarks of a campaign, which officially opened on 11 August.

‘Ali for All’

“Ali pour tous” (“Ali for all”) signs are everywhere on the avenues and boulevards of Libreville. Major construction projects are to be completed in due course. On 9 August, the first building in the Baie des Rois development was inaugurated in the presence of ABO – the headquarters of the eco-responsible Gabonese Strategic Investment Fund.

The gigantic Baie des Rois project, a new district intended to be Libreville’s showcase along its seafront, has in recent years become a symbol of the president’s perceived inaction for his detractors. ABO is keen to put an end to such comments.

The incumbent is also hoping his tour of the country will propel him into a third term in office. “For our nation, [these general elections] are a great moment of democracy,” he said in his speech on 16 August. “I invite each and every one of you to go to the polls and vote in peace and for peace, for today and tomorrow.”

While he’s relying on the voters, in this final furlong the president is also leaning on his inner circle and those loyal to him. But his real right-hand men are undoubtedly those related to him. Starting with Sylvia Bongo Ondimba, the first lady, whose importance is no longer in question since she took on a leading role when her husband had a stroke in 2018.

Undoubted support

At 60, this former businesswoman – who married ABO in 2000 and had three children with him – is strongly committed to the rights of women and gender minorities, through her foundation and through Gabon Égalité (Gabon Equality), her programme to combat discrimination and violence.

The first lady is always at her husband’s side: from the opening rally of the campaign to the military parade organised on the occasion of independence, and at every stage of his tour.

Their son, Noureddin Bongo Valentin, also played a key role in the campaign. In December 2019, he was appointed general co-ordinator of presidential affairs, a post created for him, with responsibility for “assisting the president of the Republic in the conduct of all affairs of State”.

In 2021, he left this position, which had made him one of the key figures in the presidential palace, but retained influence within the presidential cabinet, despite the appointment of Théophile Ogandaga – one of his close associates – and then Cyriaque Mvourandjiami after him at its head.

ABO’s younger half-brother Alex Bernard Bongo Ondimba was also one of the pillars of the campaign. The 53-year-old son of the late President Omar Bongo Ondimba and Nathalie Oliveira is one of the president’s most trusted confidants.

A former director general of the Agence Nationale des Infrastructures Numériques et des Fréquences (National Agency for Digital Infrastructure and Frequencies, ANINF), Alex Bernard has been secretary-general of the Ministry of Communication and the Digital Economy since 2020. As part of ABO’s campaign, he was responsible for logistical operations, transport and the organisation of meetings.

ABO, of course, has his allies within the executive too. The prime minister, Alain-Claude Bilie-By-Nze, is tasked with ensuring the main projects promised by the president are completed. A former government spokesman and advisor to ABO, this native of Makokou grew up in politics in the fold of Paul Mba Abessole, whose Rassemblement National des Bûcherons (National Woodcutters’ Rally) he joined in the 1990s.

But it was with PDG, which he joined in 2013, that Bilie-By-Nze really cut his teeth. He first joined the government in 2015 and was appointed prime minister in January 2023, after three months as deputy.

He replaces Rose Christiane Ossouka Raponda at the head of the executive, who was given a post more honorary than political and one which is often left vacant – that of vice-president. An economist, she has nonetheless retained a major role in the campaign.

New mission

Prime minister for more than two years, she has also held several government posts, but it is her mandate as mayor of Libreville that will certainly count most for the mission entrusted to her: winning the Estuaire province, Gabon’s most populated region, where she is a native. This will be a longer-term task, as ABO won just 37% of the vote against Jean Ping, his main opponent, in 2016.

ABO’s final pillar in the executive – and the youngest – is Jessye Ella Ekogha, successor to Ike Ngouoni Aila Oyouomi (now in detention), spokesperson for the presidency. Appointed following Oyouomi’s arrest in November 2019, Ekogha has been part of ABO’s new guard since his hospitalisation in 2019.

The son of the former chief of staff of the armed forces, this special advisor to the head of state is in charge of campaign communications. With a brand new website, a colourful logo and slogan, campaign clips and videos, the team he heads has pulled out all the stops.

Steeve Nzegho Dieko, secretary-general of the PDG, is also a key figure. From the party headquarters in the heart of Libreville, he was driving the political strategy of the campaign.

At 47, the former senator was appointed in March 2022 by ABO. The sprawling PDG party, which has been in power for more than 50 years, needs to demonstrate that it is capable of being everywhere at once. The aim is to ensure the president, as well as his candidates in the legislative and local elections, enjoy the best possible media exposure.

Province heavyweights

To succeed in this mission, Dieko is far from alone: ABO set up a team representing the party in each province. Working within a council of elders, it was the responsibility of each of the PDG veterans to win the province allocated to them.

ABO has appointed some heavyweights to head Gabon’s nine provinces, starting with the presidents of the two chambers, Lucie Milebou-Aubusson, who rules the senate with an iron fist, and Faustin Boukoubi, leader of the national assembly. The former, who was elected to the post in 2015 and re-elected in 2021, is also a member of the head of state’s inner circle.

When ABO was convalescing in Rabat, she was appointed to act as his deputy. Milebou-Aubusson is expected to secure victory for the PDG in Ngounié this time.

As for Boukoubi, a former minister and member of parliament, who also held the post of secretary-general of the party (a position he won in 2008 against Paulette Missambo), he was left out of the last presidential campaign and forced to resign from the PDG leadership.

With his appointment as head of the assembly, and with this election, he regained an influential role. His particular challenge will be to win Ogooué-Lolo.

In Estuaire, Paul Biyoghé Mba, the former prime minister, who had already worked to elect ABO in 2009 and 2016, is supporting Rose Christiane Ossouka Rapondo. Ogooué-Ivindo went to Georgette Koko, a former minister and deputy prime minister. Francis Ntolo Eya’a, an architect by training, is responsible for Woleu-Ntem.

Ogooué-Maritime is in the hands of Michel Essonghé, a leading figure in Gabonese politics and high commissioner of the Republic. Senator Sophie Ngouamassana is to hold Haut-Ogooué, and Richard Auguste Onouviet, the former president of the national assembly, Moyen-Ogooué. It remains to be seen, though, who will manage the campaign in the country’s southernmost province of Nyanga.

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