Washington, DC — Gabon faces an uncertain economic and political future after marking the 40th anniversary of President Omar Bongo Ondimba’s accession to power on Sunday.
The president and his entourage have been celebrating the occasion.
He reportedly told a group of longtime friends last week: “Who could have imagined that I'd stay for 40 years in power?” To which he added, during a ceremony broadcast on RTG1, the state-run television service: “Maybe you weren't wrong to trust me.”
In chorus, his supporters backed him up. “Mr. President, you were able to establish a strong bond with your people based on dialogue and tolerance,” said Didjob Divungi, the country's vice president. “President Bongo is an exceptional man,” said Antoine Mboumbou Miyakou, a former interior minister and president of Gabon's Council for Social and Economic Affairs.
“I can say that he deserves to remain in power in Gabon,” added Rene Coniquet, the president of the senate.
“He is the messiah,” Richard Onouviet, the minister of mining, told schoolchildren in Lambarene.
But others beg to differ. Despite the country’s relative wealth – its per capita gross domestic product of U.S. $6,954 in 2005 is one of the highest in Africa – daily life for most Gabonese citizens is far from rosy.
There is a wide gap between the affluent few and the rest of the population, worsened by the unequal distribution of export revenue from oil and minerals. Behind a Chinese-built, state-of-the-art, national assembly complex in the capital, Libreville, stands a lineup of precarious habitations, most lacking running water.
Poor infrastructure, particularly roads, has for many years confined remote rural areas to subsistence farming, because it takes too long for agricultural products to reach urban centers.
The September issue of Le Gri-Gri International, a banned publication, reported that "most citizens lead a primitive life in a scandalously rich country.” Earlier in the year, a May 31 Time Magazine article on the management of petroleum in Africa said: “It's really two worlds in Gabon ... rich, poor. There's nothing in the middle.”
Bongo’s supporters applaud him for keeping Gabon a stable and peaceful haven in a troubled region. Cameroon is the only other central African country that has not experienced violent conflict since independence. He is also credited with helping put one of Africa's tiniest nations on the map thanks to his mediation efforts in other countries.
And his defenders point to major works undertaken by the president, such as the Transgabonais railroad that links Libreville to the mineral-rich southeastern Upper Ogooue province.
But many Gabonese find no reason to celebrate, pointing to the wide income disparity, numerous missed opportunities for genuine economic development, unemployment, rampant corruption and the possibility of chaos after he goes – a result of the question of his succession remaining largely unaddressed. These and other grievances have caused many to fall prey to unscrupulous preachers who promise health and wealth.
Since the death of Togo’s Gnassingbe Eyadema in 2005, Bongo has become Africa’s longest serving head of State.
The then vice-president Albert Bernard Bongo came to power in 1967, aged 32, following the death of Leon M'ba, Gabon's first president, only a few months after the team was elected on the same ticket.
A year later Bongo created the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) and banned all other parties, establishing single-party rule that lasted until 1990. In that year, the country came to a standstill as civil unrest rocked Libreville, the capital, following the mysterious death of a prominent opposition leader, Joseph Rendjambe.
A “national conference” was held, attended by a record number of political parties who called for the opening of political space, to which the government agreed.
Today, however, Gabon has virtually receded back to the days of single-party rule, with PDG effectively controlling all branches of government.
Most opposition groups have over the last decade either split into irreconcilable factions (the most striking example being Morena, the country's oldest political grouping); merged into the PDG-led “presidential majority alliance” (the Rally for Gabon, RPG); or been isolated into irrelevance (Gabonese Progress Party, PGP).
In Gabon's 120-seat national assembly, the opposition is represented by only two parties, Union of the Gabonese People (UPG, 8 seats) and Union for Democracy and Development (UGDD, 4 seats).
From abroad, Bongo Doit Partir (Bongo Must Go, BDP), a radical movement based in the United States, declares on its website that Bongo has “turned Gabon into a graveyard” and advocates the overthrow of the regime “by all means necessary.”
Within the country, freedom of the press is severely curtailed by the National Communications Council (CNC), a government board that oversees the media and often arbitrarily censors independent publications.
Gabon moved from “partly free” status in 2003 to “not free” in 2007 in the press freedom rankings of the U.S.-based Freedom House. Last year journalist Norbert Ngoua Mezui was jailed on a 2003 “defamation via the press” conviction although the government failed to arrest him at the time.
Economic predictions show reason to worry over the country’s future. The government’s delay in diversifying the economy in the face of a declining oil sector means that less and less money will be available, and social unrest might unfold.
Perhaps recognizing the threat, a few former allies of the president have turned their backs on him and joined the opposition.
In 2001 Zacharie Myboto, a longtime Bongo confidante and former senior cabinet member, resigned and created a new opposition party, the Gabonese Union for Democracy and Development (UGDD). It was the biggest deflection PDG had suffered since former Prime Minister Leon Mebiame formed his own party in the mid-1990s.
Bongo and his predecessor have been very closely allied to France. In 1964, the French army restored civilian rule 48 hours after a military coup toppled Leon M'ba. Were the situation to repeat itself, it is not clear whether the French could assist in the same way again.