While both sides tussle for legitimacy, the country has come to standstill. The economy has been hard hit by the oil crisis. Ali Bongo Ondimba is still the only captain of the ship. However, stability and continuity can no longer be used as an argument. Now, more than ever before, the people of Gabon are demanding real change.
A COUNTRY OF CONTRADICTIONS
Welcome to this central African land – a country overflowing with oil, where the forest still covers over 80% of the land, the humidity level can peak at 95% during the rainy season, and which has been lulled into a service economy whilst remaining undeveloped in terms of roads and agriculture, while its destiny has been decided by one family for nearly a quarter of a century. Ali Bongo Ondimba (ABO), the more or less designated successor, took over from his father, Omar (OBO), on 30 August 2009 after a disputed election. He was re-elected on 27 August 2016 during an even more contested presidential election. A year after ABO’s second term began, Gabon, with its population of around 1.91 million, tirelessly perpetuates the paradox. A resource rich country, where the mineral wealth is exploited, but the profits and benefits never trickle down to the people. Its tropical climate is conducive to crops yet it has a subsistence economy dependent on chicken and vegetable imports from Cameroon and South Africa.
Despite a fairly good level of education and training, offices and construction sites continue to favour a foreign workforce. People’s visceral passion for external signs of wealth and the latest models of every possible product clash with their fierce attachment to the village, traditional rites and sorcery. And, while the overall population seems to be generally fed up with the Bongo family's control over the country, there is a more or less resilient form of allegiance to it. This is a typically Bantu response, reminiscent of Papa Union (OBO) and a time when paternalistic cronyism was always able to keep a little brother with no future quiet.
A year after ABO’s re-election, the country is questioning itself as it struggles to emerge from a double crisis, both economic and political. It is plagued by dizzying public debt – more than 3 trillion CFA francs (over 4.5 billion Euros), according to the IMF. His leadership is clearly handicapped by a presidential election tainted by fraud on both sides, such as, amongst others, a vote count in favour of ABO in Haut-Ogooué that exceeded the number of inhabitants, as well as violent abuses and heavy repression between the two rounds, denounced by the International community. So what is really going on around the famous Boulevard du Bord de Mer, once known for its pride and glamour?
THE ALI METHOD
The president, however, is making progress. He is ramping up the programmes and projects. He’s introducing new rules, demanding that his colleagues work harder, more rigorously. Nevertheless, concrete proof of progress, completed projects and results are not yet forthcoming. During the ABO 1 term, several good ideas were launched. For example, he promised to complete the consolidation of the Nkok Special Economic Zone. To date, and seven years after its launch in 2010, thanks to the PPP between the Gabonese state and Singapore-based company Olam, the project has made some progress, but is struggling to become truly operational, attract investors and create the ambitious number of jobs expected. Another example is the Graine project (Gabonese Initiative for Achieving Agricultural Outcomes with Engaged Citizenry), which aims to get Gabon’s people working in the fields at last but appears to be stalled.
At the end of June, at the very time of the conference on the revitalisation of agriculture and the acceleration of the Graine project, farmers accused the company SOTRADER (Agricultural Transformation and Rural Development), of not respecting its commitments in terms of crop evacuation. The same goes for social housing. This project, launched in February 2016, which plans for the first 650 Okolassi houses to be delivered in April 2018, has been shut down for months. The developer is apparently experiencing serious financial difficulties.
“It’s as if, here, good ideas are abandoned along the way. The result is that, as each new project is launched with a lot of presidential media hype, people have become incredulous. It’s all just smoke and mirrors!” says a resident of Libreville. Surrounded by a close-knit, loyal and communicative team, ABO governs according to the hyper-president principle. His new government, composed after the 2016 poll and led by Emmanuel Issoze Ngondet, has no real heavyweights.
“He took those who wanted to go. And after his heavily disputed election, when his opponent, Jean Ping, continued to proclaim his victory, they weren’t legion. So we can’t expect miracles,” explains a Franco-Gabonese executive. Also, this second ABO term hasn’t really shown any change of gear compared to the first. The “method” is the same. Ali moves forward with his ideas, stepping up the initiatives, and too bad if they don’t end in results. The country isn’t always on board. And, again, too bad if the people showed strong signs of discontent a year ago. The nay-sayers claim that the essential was to remain in power at all costs and, afterwards, what will be, will be.
A political dialogue of the deaf
It has to be said that, from a political point of view, the context is not simple. The president has to work with a self-proclaimed “president-elect”, his ex-brother-in-law and recent opponent Jean Ping who, at first, was pretty much supported by the international community. He was also supported by a good share of public opinion, without it being known whether these supporters were “pro-Ping” or just “anti-ABO”. Despite the many attempts to exact penance along with the conciliation meetings proposed by the government, the former foreign minister and ex-president of the African Union is standing firm. And with him, or just like him, many stalwarts of the Gabonese political class have also decided to turn their backs on the “son”.
But for how long? The political climate is most pernicious. On 11 July the Constitutional Court postponed the legislative elections, originally scheduled to take place before the end of July, to April 2018, on the grounds that the Angondjé Accords, signed by both sides of the political dialogue, stipulate that certain electoral reforms must be taken into account.
In the meantime, Jean Ping is sticking to his guns and, on 17 July, while in Paris, with the unconditional support of the diaspora, he made a promise: “The fall is near. Ali Bongo will leave. I’m betting on it.” A gamble far from being won... Do the Gabonese people, deep in their hearts, really believe that this brother-in-law, several times minister under the leadership of Bongo senior, is capable of embodying any change? For nearly fifty years, with an aging political class that has never really been able to renew itself, a real alternative to the Bongo dynasty has been hard to come by.
GLOOM AND INSECURITY
Libreville has changed, as have its inhabitants. No more sequins on the Croisette. The Montée de Louis Casino no longer welcomes the convoys of gleaming 4X4s that once purred around the chic, expensive establishments where the glitterati partied until dawn. A few are still to be seen outside the No Stress nightclub, which continues to attract a young and affluent clientele. Nowadays, the trend is towards discretion, concealed signs of wealth and general suspicion.
People are careful not to be seen with X or Y, for fear of being suspected of this or that. The elite lunch in the office and in less ostentatious downtown restaurants. In the evening, people invite their friends around for a drink or a meal, something totally new to Gabon. Some might go for a drink at the luxurious Sky Life complex of bars and restaurants, developed by Noureddine Bongo, the president’s son. To look good... On the other hand, on the weekend, nobody goes tanning round the pool at the Hotel Maïsha anymore, as it’s owned by the family of the political opponent Zacharie Myboto, a supporter of Jean Ping. That wouldn’t look good… In the various neighborhoods, “we eat the crisis,” says a taxi driver. There’s not as much money as before, and commodities are mainly imported and expensive. According to the recent Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) measurement, consumer prices went up by an average of 3.3% in the first quarter of 2017.
The stores and small markets – both public and private – that once thrived, are vegetating. The atmosphere is gloomy as a result. To make matters worse, there’s a new development in the capital – petty crime and insecurity have gradually set in. The reason for this, it is said, is the drastic decline in purchasing power. And violence of a more political ilk now has the wind in its sails. The president and his entourage are regularly victims of “incivility” abroad.
This is mainly from activists disgruntled by the re-election of ABO last year. In June, they yelled “Ali is a killer” in front of the New York hotel where the president was staying and manhandled his chief of staff, Martin Boguikouma. In Paris, they accosted his father-in-law, Édouard Valentin... In Gabon, gangs set fire to opponents' cars. According to government spokesman Billie-By-Nze, they are fired up by Ping's violently anti-government remarks, whereas the opponent sees them as being manipulated by those in power. And while each camp passes the buck, the atmosphere in Libreville gradually degenerates, a symptom of the general malaise.
PRESIDENTIAL SCANDALS AND PERVASIVE PARANOIA
At the same time, those at the top are weakened by the whiff of “scandal”. True, false, calculated, it pervades and poisons the atmosphere, creating an almost permanent suspicion of an international conspiracy against the Head-of-State and members of his clan. On 6 July, French television channel France 2 broadcast an investigative report on Ali and the Bongo clan, which made headlines and triggered a real conflict between the “fors” and “against”.
Its detractors argue that France, as usual, has it in for ABO. Above all, the case of ill-gotten gains, in which Ali and his sister Pascaline are accused, is still open, albeit more or less frozen until the family settles the father's estate. This is being deliberately delayed by the clan, say the complainant’s lawyers.
From the pantagruelic enrichment and gargantuan real estate holdings – everything was read, heard, and commented on, from the depths of the bars of Lalala to the turned backs of Nzeng Ayong. Nevertheless, public opinion, in an astonishing patriotic outburst recurrent in such circumstances, is more interested in the alleged shady attempts of a Francafrique settling its scores than the possible plundering of the country's resources by the family in power. Some will say that, in Bantu tradition, the more affluent the chief, the more he is respected and thus his accumulation of wealth is practically engraved in traditional law.
AN ANNIVERSARY IN NUMBERS
A year after the start of ABO’s second term, some indicators are not good. In July, international rating agency Moody's lowered Gabon’s rating from B1 to B3, while maintaining a negative outlook. This depreciated rating is due in part to the deterioration in public finances as a result of the fall in oil prices and the lack of an appropriate adjustment policy.
“Another effect of the international conspiracy”, is the word in the cosy corridors of the Palais au Bord du Mer, the seaside presidential palace. Nevertheless, the drop in raw material prices has seriously affected the country’s service economy which, for decades, has been tied to oil. Its small gold production fell 65% at the beginning of the year. In parallel, the new car market, still in the test phase and which, two years ago, looked so promising, decreased by 30.2% according to the automotive industry representatives union.
Only the timber sector is showing signs of resilience, with industrial production rising 14.9% due to a steady supply of logs and the increased power of newly built processing plants. Despite the 382 billion CFA francs (around 582 million Euros) loan from the International Monetary Fund in support of the government's three-year 2017-2019 Economic Recovery Plan (PRE), the short-term economic outlook of the country remains gloomy. According to the IMF Mission Chief for Gabon, Alex Segura-Ubiergo, “the growth rate decreased from 3.9% in 2015 to 2.1% in 2016. This is a significant slowdown compared to the average growth of 6% between 2010 and 2013, before the oil crisis.” Here, perhaps more than elsewhere in Central Africa, the diversification of the economy has never really taken place, despite all the hype and hot air. Work, excellence, entrepreneurship...
All those ideas cited in the various presidential programmes launched with great pomp and press coverage since 2009. In reality, they’re just smoke and mirrors. The PRE was presented by Prime Minister Issoze Ngondet on 28 June before the Assembly, with the promise of restarting growth, reducing poverty and creating 2,000 jobs. The second Gabon Poverty Assessment and Monitoring Survey was announced on 18 July by the Director General of Statistics and Economic Studies, Francis Thierry Tiwinot. The first, conducted in 2007, showed that 33% of Gabon’s citizens were living below the poverty line. What will the new survey show, ten years later?
WHAT WILL TOMORROW BRING ?
President ABO’s favourite cause is the country’s young people. Motivate them, give them hope, and find them a path for tomorrow. The “Un jeune = Un métier” (One Young Person = One Job) project, which aims to help find work for young Gabonese people who have no training, was launched in February 2016. There’s also the “Grand Prix de l’Excellence” (Excellence Award), which rewards the country’s young entrepreneurs. Project incubators and good initiatives are on the rise. For it is here, according to a source close to the Palace, that the success of this second term will play out: “We must bet on the youth, who no longer reason in the same way as the yesterday’s generations. Today's boys and girls, raised with the Internet and new technologies, have a different vision of the future. They want to work, to rebuild their country in a way different to that of their fathers and grandfathers. They want to start businesses, succeed, and create jobs. Become rich through their talent.”
He could not have put it better. For the real “Gabonese question” is how this society, dominated by generations of billionaire bosses who have not created jobs or wealth, will change, modernise, and turn the page on the past and the old ways and map out a future for tomorrow. And, somehow, the crisis seems to have given some people wings. Starting a business – a rare desire during the time of OBO, when one just aimed for a post in the administration or clung to the coat-tails of a high-ranking uncle – has became fashionable.
People in their thirties have started businesses in tourism, livestock, transport, and waste treatment, and have succeeded – at their own expense, counting on no-one. They share their experiences in the local media and are emulated by others. This generation is gradually embodying a profound change of mentality in the country. It, alone, holds the key to emergence, far beyond the promises of ABO or any other leader. After the Head-of-State’s self-assured 2009 slogan “L’avenir en confiance” (Confidence in the Future), he quickly switched to “Changeons ensemble” (Let's Change Together) for the 2016 campaign. The Gabonese people understood the urgent need for change long before this slogan. And, if they are motivated enough, they might well accomplish it alone, free from any presidential motto.