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Gabon: Corruption, succession, elections… President Bongo opens up

By Marwane Ben Yahmed, in Libreville
Posted on Friday, 9 April 2021 04:01

Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba addresses a meeting on climate change at the 30th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Heads of State and the Government of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 29 January 2018. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba recently granted his first interview since suffering a stroke in 2018. Well aware that "a few people thought it was their turn to take the reins" after his illness, he is determined to reform Gabon and unafraid to tackle thorny issues.

Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba, who suffered a stroke in October 2018 in Saudi Arabia, finally accepted to sit down with us for an exclusive interview. No topic was too taboo, it was a relatively impromptu affair and no question went unanswered.

We had, given the time that had passed since his illness, no shortage of questions on the true state of his health and his capacity to lead the country: how he was able to gradually put himself back together and the alarming sequence of events that went down during his recovery when his power wavered and settling of scores was rampant in his own camp.

We were also eager to discuss all the headlines that have been splashed across Gabon since Ali Bongo’s  return: the purge of his inner circle, including the dramatic ouster of his all-powerful chief of staff Brice Laccruche Alihanga; the revolving door of cabinets and prime ministers; the rise to power of his eldest son Noureddin Bongo Valentin; anti-corruption efforts; the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the authorities’ reform strategy.

Ali Bongo hosted us on the morning of 16 March 2021 in the ambassadors’ room at his official residence, the Palais du Bord de Mer. Cheerful and relaxed, not to mention physically transformed – he has shed more than 40kg since his health ordeal – the President set his usual reservations about such interviews aside, humouring us during the more than hour-long back-and-forth.

Life-changing experience

His speech sounded normal, though it is perhaps less smooth than before his stroke. When speaking about technical matters, he sometimes took a while to find his words, but physically speaking, he has regained his motor skills and the full use of his limbs – notably on his right side – which he had long battled to recover the use of, though his leg still has a mind of its own.

He uses a walking stick to get around, moving at his own pace, which is not as fast as he used to when playing football with his family on Sunday nights. If Ali Bongo has come this far in his recovery, it is due to hundreds of hours of physical and speech therapy, as well as his adoption of healthier habits (he is a former food and cigar lover).