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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).

Ali Bongo knows his story is a miracle, that if his stroke had occurred in Libreville or Chad – the country he was slated to visit the day after his incapacitation – he would likely no longer be with us, and the experience has changed him. After running out of questions, we are the ones who wrapped up the interview: he would have gladly continued.

You suffered a serious stroke in Saudi Arabia in October 2018. How are you feeling now?

Ali Bongo: Thanks be to God, I’m doing well, and I’d like to repeat my gratitude to the authorities in Saudi Arabia and Morocco for their warm, brotherly hospitality. I also want to thank the Gabonese people, as their thoughts and prayers helped me get through this ordeal. Their support gave me a great deal of strength. Lastly, I want to thank my family, especially my wife and my children, for remaining by my side.

All of that is behind me now, so I’m firmly focused on exercising my duties as head of state. I’ve even stepped up my work rhythm in an effort to achieve my long-standing goal, which is that the Gabonese people want for nothing and that the country continues its development trajectory.

Did your health challenges change you?

Certainly. I’m much more careful now about my health. That said, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger – and boosts your determination. I’m looking forward to recovering my full health and regaining my natural speech pattern. I still have a few steps ahead of me before I can get there. This is something I work at each day, on top of my duties as head of state. I have to admit that I went through some difficult times.

During your recovery, your power wavered and a clan war broke out among those close to you. How did you deal with that?

That incident only concerned a microcosm of people. A few people thought it was their turn to take the reins. I suspected as much. But the vast majority of people supported me. They have been wonderful and I couldn’t leave them in the lurch. Their support gave me strength and that helped me recover more quickly than the doctors predicted. It was also important that our constitutionally governed institutions keep functioning, and they held strong. That’s something in which we, the Gabonese people, can take pride.

I’ve never given up and it has never occurred to me to quit the presidency. A captain cannot abandon his ship.

Did your stroke impact the way you approach your life?

I’ve come out of this ordeal with a much greater drive to make Gabon one of the most advanced nations in Africa inside of 10 years in areas such as training, health and the green economy. I’ve also become more demanding. The way I think about time is different now. We are all limited by time, so we need to make the most of it. I’m dedicating my time to the Gabonese people.

Your opponents say you are weakened or even incapable of leading Gabon. What is your response to them, especially as 2023 draws near? Do you plan to stand for re-election?

As head of state, I have enough to think about and do. I have the burdensome task of leading a country and accomplishing certain initiatives. The presidential election is still more than two years away. I’m focused on taking action and carrying out reforms. I don’t have much time to devote to anything else, particularly in light of the public health crisis.

As for my opponents, they should direct their energy to coming up with ideas and gaining an understanding of the population’s daily concerns and take a constructive approach. They are sorely mistaken if they think they can win over the Gabonese people by merely criticising and stirring controversy.

Have you ever thought about leaving office?

I’ve never given up and it has never occurred to me to quit the presidency. A captain cannot abandon his ship.

After your stroke, you sidelined your closest associates – those whom have been part of your inner circle since 2009, or even going further back, including Maixent Accrombessi, Liban Soleman, Étienne Massard, Frédéric Bongo, Monsieur Park, Steed Rey, Serge Mickoto and Arsène Emvahou. Only Jean-Yves Teale, Michael Moussa and Lee White have stayed on. Why the purge?

It wasn’t about any individual person, but about our collective efficiency. After my return on the job in 2019, I wanted to embark on a new phase in my seven-year term of office. That meant bringing in people with new skill sets, people who think and approach situations differently. To be able to continuously adapt, we have to be prepared to shake up our organisational charts.

You appointed your eldest son, Noureddin, as coordinator of presidential affairs. What is his role exactly? Some say that, looking ahead to the 2023 election, you are preparing your successor, for instance.

I asked him to come work for the Gabonese people. Without a moment’s hesitation, he left a job he loved and excelled at to do so. Noureddin, whom I obviously trust completely, is extremely competent. He helps me in my day-to-day work and ensures that my instructions are carried out and followed up. His role is highly technical.

He also has a distinct vision for Gabon’s long-term development, a modern perspective and a keen awareness of a range of issues such as job training, combating inequality and environmental protection.

Finally, I especially value his honesty. That’s not a common trait in the political class. He’s not afraid to tell me what he thinks or to sound the alarm if he thinks we’re going down the wrong path. But I’m not going to comment on anything that’s pure speculation or invention.

His appointment was announced after the ouster and subsequent arrest of your chief of staff, Alihanga, on charges of embezzling public funds. Once an all-powerful figure in your administration, his fall from grace caused confusion. What really happened?

I’m sure you understand that, as president and in accordance with the separation of powers, I cannot comment on a pending legal case. All I can say is that I have absolute confidence in my country’s judicial system. If any wrongdoing has been committed, the courts will get to the bottom of it and he will be punished for his misdeeds.

Pressure from outside forces – no matter where it comes from or what form it takes – cannot change the course of events. The Gabonese judicial system is independent.

Anti-corruption efforts have brought down quite a few other figures. What has been the outcome of Gabon’s various anti-corruption campaigns, such as Operation Mamba I and II and Operation Scorpion?

Tackling corruption is one of my top priorities. You mention Operation Mamba and Operation Scorpion. On a different note, you could bring up the recent work conducted by our domestic debt task force, which found that, out of a total audited amount of 1trn CFA francs ($1.9bn), 623bn CFA francs was fake debts – that is, a 62% share.

In recent months, our institutional mechanisms have been reinforced (including the public procurement directorate and the national financial investigations agency, alongside the creation of a national audit board), and our procedures have become more stringent. My policy towards corruption is clear-cut: zero tolerance!

Since your re-election in 2016, you have worked with three different prime ministers and initiated at least a dozen cabinet reshuffles. Not exactly the picture of stability, is it?

When it comes to my cabinet, what matters most isn’t stability or how long members serve, but efficiency. Stability is a means to an end, while efficiency is an end in itself. If change will bring about more efficiency, then I don’t hesitate to institute change. A president has to know how to adapt and to make decisions.

Are you pleased with your prime minister, Rose Christiane Ossouka Raponda, and her team?

I’ve gotten to know her well since her first cabinet appointment. She made a name for herself when she did a remarkable job at the defence ministry. She and her cabinet, like their predecessors, will be judged, when the time comes, on their track records. I’m expecting them to deliver meaningful progress.

We must improve the everyday lives of the Gabonese people and better prepare the country for the future. What I can say at this point is that the prime minister has earned my complete confidence.

The cabinet has embarked on a constitutional reform process. One provision provides that, in the event the president is unable to exercise his duties, a triumvirate made up of the defence minister and the presidents of both houses of parliament would be responsible for exercising the role of acting president.  That’s an unusual arrangement, to say the least.

I’d like to clarify a point. It isn’t a question of ‘reforming’ as in ‘changing’; it’s about strengthening our constitutional structure by resolving a number of technical points, including the potential for a power vacuum, the criminal liability of the head of state and the senate’s make-up. There’s no need to politicise a debate that is actually a purely legal matter. All the reforms being undertaken serve to deepen our country’s democratic foundations.

But to specifically address your question on the inclusion of the defence minister in the group that would take over the president’s duties in the event of a power vacuum, given the president of the republic’s role as head of the armed forces, it’s normal for the defence minister, who has the required expertise and experience in the area, to replace him if he is unable to perform his duties.

The political climate has been tense ever since the 2016 presidential election. What can be done to ease the situation?

That may be your point of view, but it is one that I don’t share and it doesn’t correspond to reality. For one, the elections that have been held since then, whether legislative, local or, more recently, senatorial, went off without a hitch, with no violence to speak of. And let’s not forget that our opponents today were our partners yesterday.

Gabon has one of the most peaceful political climates in Africa. That said, there’s no guarantee that things will stay that way, which is why we have to keep working on two fronts.

First, we need to ensure that our political institutions are more representative of the diversity of our population, which is why we want to include women, young people and private-sector voices in the cabinet, in the national assembly and within other bodies.

Second, we must carry out the reforms the Gabonese people have come to expect. Establishing a peaceful, calm environment in the country involves enacting reforms that are popular with the people.

How has your Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG) been faring since its underwhelming performance in the most recent presidential election?

Once again, you are free to say what you will, but that isn’t an accurate assessment. The PDG, which just celebrated its 53rd anniversary, has undergone a lot of reforms in recent years. To be sure, the party has had its fair share of departures and taken disciplinary action against some of its members. That said, it has gained a great many new members, to the extent that we’re seeing positive growth, for the most part.

The PDG reflects the diversity of our population more closely now. We have given a bigger role to women, young people, private-sector workers and the regions. In addition, the party brought its programmatic software up to speed and, taken together, these efforts have paid off. The PDG had a record showing in the three most recent elections [legislative and local elections in 2018, senatorial elections in 2021]. That momentum hasn’t waned. On the contrary, the party is in tip-top shape.

The opposition is fragmented. Who are your biggest rivals? The likes of Jean Ping, Guy Nzouba-Ndama and Alexandre Barro-Chambrier?

I’m not at liberty to comment on specific people, especially if they aren’t members of my political party. But let it be said that the same people who have something critical to say at every turn have been in office for a long time and held top-level positions. As the saying goes, criticism is easy, but art is difficult.

Gabon’s democracy would stand to benefit from having a structured, constructive opposition movement. One that doesn’t just spew criticism without ever making counterproposals. Politics isn’t just a power game: it means having the fate of hundreds of thousands of men and women in your hands. So you have to know how to take responsibility and to put your country’s interests before your own.

You haven’t named a successor to former vice-president Pierre Claver Maganga Moussavou. Do you have plans to replace him?

The question will be settled very shortly. I’m currently reviewing several candidates, and my decision will be announced promptly.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted Gabon? And how is the country’s outlook shaping up for 2021?

The pandemic has chiefly had a human cost. Despite the fact that our response was deemed very effective by international institutions, with high testing rates and low mortality, Gabon has recorded a little over 100 deaths, though this number doesn’t factor in cases of long Covid.

But there have also been social impacts. Our lives have undergone profound transformations in the space of a year. The Gabonese people have made huge sacrifices, and I thank them for their efforts.

Finally, there has been economic fallout. In 2020, we were dealt a triple shock tied to the collapse in global demand for our main exports, the fall in commodity prices and the slowdown in certain sectors due to measures taken nationwide to slow the spread of the epidemic.

As a result, our GDP contracted by about 5% year on year versus 2019, coming in at between -1% and -2%. At the same time, our budgetary revenue fell by around 4% of GDP year on year versus 2019 and our spending dropped by 1.5%, despite an increase in health expenditures to combat the epidemic.

Gabon is proving to be more resilient than other African countries, however. As a result, we’re anticipating a strong rebound this year and a growth rate of 4%.

Coronavirus-related restrictions do not sit well with the population, especially seeing as the number of Covid cases and deaths seems relatively low.

Communities are bearing the brunt of the restrictions. This is something happening all over the world, and I sympathise with their hardship. My responsibility as head of state requires me to implement measures that are not enjoyable. But I have to take the right decisions to protect the Gabonese people.

Also, while the number of deaths reported in Gabon is relatively low, the figure has risen significantly since the start of the year. One-third of all coronavirus-related deaths were reported in the past three months, which shows how essential it is to maintain, and sometimes tighten, certain restrictions. It also highlights the need to hasten the implementation of our vaccination programme.

At the beginning of March, we received our first shipment of 100,000 doses of Sinopharm’s vaccine. Sputnik V vaccines are set to arrive soon. Gabon is also a member of the COVAX initiative, which has already begun delivering vaccines in other parts of Africa, so we should receive our allotment soon.

No stone has been left unturned. Taken together, these efforts will ultimately pay off, I’m sure of it. My goal is to help the Gabonese people get back to a normal lifestyle as quickly as possible.

You launched the Plan d’Accélération de la Transformation (PAT) for 2021-2023 for Gabon’s economy. What are you looking to achieve? There has been talk of economic diversification for a long time now.

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, diversifying an economy doesn’t happen at the snap of a finger. The fact remains that Gabon has made immense strides on this field in the space of 10 years. For instance, the timber sector has gained considerable ground, while the share of oil in GDP is down from 42.2% in 2010 to 32.7% in 2019. In addition, Gabon is increasingly processing its commodities locally before exporting them abroad, which is good for industry and creates jobs.

We want to boost these dynamics with the help of the PAT, which was adopted in January. The objective is to make the most of the three years covered by the plan for Gabon. Eventually, our growth will not only be more robust, but also more endogenous, meaning less reliant on global commodity prices, as well as a more powerful engine for job creation – 30,000 jobs in three years in the timber sector alone – and more sustainable and adapted to the emergence of climate change.

Another aspect I’d like to point out is that our debt, which currently stands at 70% of GDP, will be brought below the 50% threshold. We’ll get there by keeping our spending under control, accelerating our growth and restructuring our debt (through extending its maturity and renegotiating interest rates).

How would you assess your performance as head of state since 2009? In 2016, a large majority of voters rejected you in favour of Jean Ping.

Anyone who loves their country would always like to do more for it. Certainly, we could have done better in some areas. Mistakes that could have been avoided were made.

But while we have fallen short in certain respects, we have also produced many accomplishments. They shouldn’t be overlooked, whether we’re talking about the economic success of the timber sector, the social progress of free maternity healthcare or the societal achievement of gender parity. I don’t have the power to change the past, but I can take action both in the here and now and in the future. And that’s what I’m focused on.

How have Gabon’s relations with France changed under President Emmanuel Macron? François Hollande’s presidency (2012-2017) was an especially tricky period.

During Hollande’s presidency, relations between Gabon and France were not always very smooth. There were misunderstandings. Since Macron’s election, things have improved markedly. We share the same desire to have bilateral relations that are enriching, serene and, I would say, in line with the times.

Which countries are Gabon’s main partners today?

In 10 years’ time, Gabon has greatly expanded its pool of partnerships. Countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, along with Russia and Turkey, are increasingly doing business here, which attests to our economic attractiveness. At the same time, we have been able to maintain a special relationship with our traditional partners, chief among them Europe and the United States.

In the international arena, Gabon is a partner that matters. Our activism and place at the forefront on certain issues, such as tackling climate change [the country chairs the African Group of Negotiators ahead of COP26], is admired in particular.

Gabon’s diplomatic influence has also made itself known through our election in October 2020 to the UN Human Rights Council and the African Union’s approval last February of our candidacy as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

The Gabonese people have a multitude of expectations, especially in the wake of the Covid pandemic. Do you think you will be able to meet their demands?

If I had the slightest doubt about this, I would have suffered the consequences long ago. I have an obligation to deliver results to the Gabonese people. I will continue to devote all my energy to meeting their most legitimate expectations. And I have energy to spare!

On a personal note

What is your worst trait?

Ali Bongo: My stubbornness.

And your best trait?

My perseverance.

What are you reading right now?

Andrew Roberts’ Churchill: Walking with Destiny. I must admit, however, that I barely find the time to read lately, as I have a great deal of projects on my plate.

What historical figure has influenced you the most?

My father, of course. Among contemporary figures, I’d say Martin Luther King Jr and Charles de Gaulle, as well as Lee Kuan Yew for his effective leadership.

What’s your favourite hobby?

Music. I love to play and compose it.

If you could be reincarnated as an animal, which would you choose?

A feline: a lion, tiger or panther.

What was the most moving moment of your life?

The birth of my children.

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