Gabon: Country without a boss

By Coumba Sylla in Libreville

Posted on July 26, 2009 22:00

After the death of Omar Bongo Ondimba and with oil revenues beginning to slow, ?Gabon is at an unfamiliar and potentially destabilising crossroads

After nearly 42 years under the leadership of President El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba – nicknamed ‘the boss’ for his skills as a political strategist – the Gabonese political elite is scrambling to find a replacement. “We feel abandoned. We don’t know what lies ahead and how it’s going to work out,” said Charles Cyrille, one of the thousands who queued up to bow before Bongo’s coffin as it lay in state at the presidency.

In the wake of Bongo’s passing in a Barcelona hospital on 8 June, the country embarked on a month-long mourning period. In line with Gabonese law, the Constitutional Court entrusted the head of state’s functions to Rose Francine Rogombé, 66, a native of Lambaréné, who had been elected in February as the president of the Senate as a representative of the ruling Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG).

Three weeks after Rogombé took over the reins, a date for elections had yet to be announced, and it was increasingly clear that polling would not take place within the constitutionally-mandated 45-day period. The Constitutional Court allowed a delay at the end of June, saying that elections would have to be organised by 6 September, at the latest. However, negotiations between the political parties relating to the electoral register and other logistical problems may push the elections even further away.

Profiles of the key contenders:

Ali Ben Bongo, Pascaline Bongo
and Pierre Mamboundou

A family succession??

The man everyone is talking about as a successor is Ali Ben Bongo Ondimba, 50, son of the late president and the minister of defence since 1999. He has yet to comment on his intentions but he openly declared it “too early” and “indecent” to talk of succession when Gabon was still in mourning. Youths with no political affiliation called for Ali Ben to announce his candidacy, and without waiting for his response, started a collection for the necessary campaign costs. At the end of June they had already raised the 2m CFA francs ($4,250) necessary to pay his campaign registry fees. The PDG unsurprisingly announced in mid-July that Ali Ben would be its candidate in the next polls.

The next elections will be the first time that the party and the nation could have a real choice of candidates. Competition within the PDG is fierce, and the party will want to be sure that everyone rallies around the chosen candidate and that splinter parties are not formed.

The would-have-been candidates within the PDG were: General Idriss Ngari, 63, health minister and rival of Ali Ben Bongo (and his predecessor at the defence ministry); Casimir Oyé Mba, 67, ex-prime minister (1990-1994) and the current mines, energy and oil minister; Paul Toungi, 58, foreign minister and partner of Omar Bongo Ondimba’s eldest daughter, Pascaline Mferri Bongo Ondimba; and Prime Minister Jean Eyéghé Ndong, 63, who pledged to support the party and not abandon it if he were not named its candidate.

Bongo was an expert in exploiting ethnic geopolitics, and so the post-Bongo period is likely to experience more ethnicity-fuelled rhetoric. The opposition – most prominently represented by Zacharie Myboto of the Union Gabonaise pour la Démocratie et le Développement and Pierre Mamboundou of the Union du Peuple Gabonais – will also be represented in the elections, but no one has wanted to appear impolitic by announcing an early candidature.

The Gabonese themselves recognise that their country – a place of stability in an otherwise turbulent region tainted by conflict and coups – is at a crossroads. Abel Mimongo, a writer for the government-backed daily newspaper L’Union, says that whoever succeeds the late president should “strengthen the values of dialogue, tolerance and peace” which he promoted, but also “iron out the imperfections and break away from the type of governance which has for so long harmed Gabonese society as a whole.”?

“From a political point of view we expect significant change… Our hope is that the next president takes more care of the Gabonese,” declares Christian Richard Abiaghe Ngomo, spokesman for the Transparence et Gouvernance Démocratique (TGD-Gabon) coalition, which represents 30 or so associations and trade unions. In a ‘call for citizens’ vigilance’ aired on 22 June, TGD-Gabon argued that the transition underway is an “opportunity to restructure the political order which has dominated Gabon for decades,” during which “political games and empty promises” have harmed efforts for development.

A change to come

Keep the petrol flowing
to French tanks

Keeping Françafrique alive.
Read more.

The word ‘change’ keeps coming up in discussions with Gabonese citizens. The country is rich in hydrocarbons and mineral products, but social crises have multiplied over the last few months, despite the country boasting an annual income per habitant which is on average four or five times higher than those in most Sub-Saharan African countries. Gabon’s relationship with France has become more uneasy since accusations from the Gabonese of a French media and NGO ‘campaign’ against former President Bongo in 2008. An old partner, France had been considered firmly joined to Gabon, with close personal relationships between leaders. Bongo was considered as one of the pillars of ‘Françafrique’, a system of opaque ties between French and African leaders.

“With each change in leader, there was a subtle change in the relationship between France and Gabon. The same can be said with each change in French president, which would affect Gabon in some way,” observed political scientist Jean-François Obiang, who has written extensively on Franco-Gabonese relations.

“However, nothing suggests there will be any change in the continuity and closeness of their relationship, because this is ultimately based on the interests of each country,” he adds. “Taking into account the French presence in Gabon – industrial, economic, military – it would greatly surprise me if anything were done to rupture the existing ties,” even if it is the wish of future leaders, and “the relationship will remain more or less the same.”

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