Since its independence from France in 1960, Gabon has had just three Presidents. Not surprisingly, notes Legalbrief , the hospitalisation of current leader Ali Bongo has sparked a constitutional crisis that has the AU gravely concerned. His family has ruled the oil-producing country for nearly half a century.
In the early 1990s, Gabon introduced a multi-party system and a new democratic Constitution that allowed for a more transparent electoral process and reformed many governmental institutions. Bongo has been President since succeeding his father, Omar, who died in 2009. However, his re-election in 2016 was marred by claims of fraud and violent protests. The leader has been receiving medical treatment at the King Faisal Hospital in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh since 24 October and there are unconfirmed reports that he suffered a major stroke.
The country's top court last week ruled that the Vice President or Prime Minister will chair the Cabinet in Bongo's absence. A report on the IoL site notes that the decision, announced by the Constitutional Court on Wednesday, is the first move to fill the vacuum. The court action was initiated by Vice President Pierre-Claver Moussavou who had urged the court to intervene, referring to Articles 13 and 16 of the Constitution.
A report on the Deutsche Welle site notes that the court explained that its decision was taken 'to ensure the continuity of the state and of public services'. However, the opposition has condemned the move as an attempt to consolidate power in the hands of the Bongo clan. Analyst Andre Adjo said the court has introduced provisions that did not exist before. 'And they've done so independently of whether the President's absence, or at least incapacity, is permanent or temporary.'
He notes that the Constitution already includes measures that cover such an eventuality. 'It states that in the event of a vacancy resulting from the President's resignation, death or health-related limitations, new elections must be held within 45 days. But the court has taken the liberty of introducing a different scenario,' Adjo added. Political scientist Wilson-Andre Ndombet believes that a military coup in Bongo's absence is unlikely. 'The presidential guard is led by Gregoire Kouna, the cousin of the Gabonese President. There hasn't been a military coup in Gabon since the 1960s,' he said. Full report on the IoL site Full report on the Deutsche Welle site
The AU on Saturday warned Gabon to respect constitutional order after the court intervention. A report on the News24 site notes that AU Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat emphasised that the 55-member group of African nations had a 'strong commitment to the full respect of constitutional order in the country'. Mahamat urged all role players to 'show the necessary collective leadership during this time in order to preserve unity, peace and stability in the country'. He added that he would deploy a fact-finding mission to Libreville 'in the shortest delay'.
Freedom of the press is being eroded in Gabon, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has noted, after the government suspended a newspaper for commenting on Bongo's hospitalisation. The media regulator last week delivered a three-month suspension to the L'Aube newspaper, and suspended its editor, which had run an article saying the country had been put on 'very dangerous autopilot' in Bongo's absence. It called on Issoze-Ngondet to name the speaker of the Senate, Lucie Milebou Mboussou, as interim President to fill the power vacuum.
RSF's Africa representative, Arnaud Froger, called for the immediate lifting of the suspension, labelling it 'the latest act in a worrying erosion of freedom of the press in Gabon in recent months'. And Gabon's Media Owners Organisation issued a statement condemning the regulator's 'mounting authoritarianism' which has included arbitrary sanctions on three Gabonese newspapers and a French television channel in less than six months. RSF statement
Legalbrief reports that irrespective of the outcome, the stakes are sky-high. Abundant petroleum and foreign private investment have helped make country – bordered by Equatorial Guinea to the northwest, Cameroon to the north, the Republic of the Congo on the east and south, and the Gulf of Guinea to the west – one of the most prosperous in Sub-Saharan Africa. It has the fourth highest Human Development Index and the fourth highest GDP per capita after Mauritius, Equatorial Guinea and the Seychelles in the region. However, because of inequality in income distribution, a significant proportion of the population remains poor.