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Ali Bongo: We told Sarkozy we didn’t want to know about Françafrique

By Patrick Smith
Posted on Monday, 9 July 2012 15:29

Pushing hard on three fronts – economic growth, accountable governance and environmental protection programme – President Bongo has set out a hugely ambitious. He explains how he hopes to achieve it.

Fresh from a trip around Australia’s mining industry and before setting off for an investment tour of Brazil, Gabon’s President Ali Ben Bongo Ondimba was spending a couple of days in London to meet Prime Minister David Cameron and address a group of business school students in May. A talented pianist and composer, he comes across as a relaxed but indefatigable traveller and diplomatic networker.

Bongo is also an assiduous reader of historical biographies. That may have been useful in London last year when he met the heir to the throne, Prince Charles. The prince’s environmental group is working alongside Gabonese technicians on a rainforest conservation project. Like England, Gabon has found ways to punch above its weight.

“The President doesn’t like surprises,” a senior official said en route to a suite in one of the most luxurious hotels in London’s Mayfair area. Even if President Bongo does not relish his journalistic encounters, he sees jousting with the press as a useful means to keep Gabon on the international agenda. An extensive set of briefing papers lay on a table beside him.

Richer and Greener

As he explains his determination to make Gabon a middle-income country without wrecking the environment, Bongo sounds more managing director than political leader: “I ran for office on the basis of a programme. The people elected me because they appreciated the programme, now my mission is to apply it.”

The Bongo entourage took over the best part of a floor in the hotel as top officials coordinated travel plans and positioned papers. With its ambitious low-carbon development programme and plans to ramp up manganese and iron ore mining, Gabon is attracting plenty of commercial interest. Government negotiators assure that they are no longer a pushover for the big conglomerates.

Bongo has no problems with a comparison of his government to the regimes of Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia or Paul Kagame in Rwanda but rejects any accusation of authoritarianism:

“I don’t know what you mean by this developmental authoritarianism – I’m a democrat, and I think that Rwanda and Ethiopia are democratic too. They go through elections as well,” he says. He shrugs when complaints by civic activists about vote rigging are raised: “It’s very difficult to find elections in Africa that are not criticised. The losers always seem to criticise the result.”

Since Ali Bongo won presidential elections in 2009 with 42% of the vote after the death of his father, Omar Bongo Ondimba, he has shaken out the old guard of the ruling Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG). Opposition parties, many of whom boycotted last December’s elections to the National Assembly, say that Bongo has not liberalised the political sphere. Oppositionists complained about the lack of access to the media and the government’s refusal to introduce a biometric voting system and other safeguards against vote rigging.

Divisions within the opposition over whether to boycott the polls allowed the PDG to take a landslide victory, winning 114 of 120 seats. Without further political reform, that pattern looks unlikely to change in the senatorial and presidential elections in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Although some in the government suggest that landslide victories raise more problems than they solve, that argument wins little support further up the hierarchy.

A fixture on the international conference circuit, Bongo is trying to persuade audiences that he represents a new wave in Africa. Yet he is the son of one of the continent’s longest-serving leaders, Omar Bongo Ondimba, whose adroit handling of local politics and regional diplomacy made him the doyen of Francophone Africa. For almost four decades, Bongo père’s charm, job offers and cash usually proved irresistible to his adversaries.

That is not the style of Bongo fils, his advisers say. There is less money for patronage in the system, a complaint heard frequently in Libreville. The idea of buying off the opposition is no longer a workable strategy, an adviser insisted. “All visitors to the presidency leave their brief cases and cellphones with us before they enter, and I can assure you they come out empty handed,” another source at the presidency said.

The new leadership is keen to leave the past behind it. US diplomatic cables…

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