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Bongo's bonanza
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 01 - 12 - 2005

In Gabon the pumped-up oil-fuelled economy competes against the ballot box, writes Gamal Nkrumah
The spate of elections and leadership changes around Africa south of the Sahara over the past decade has been heralded as the culmination of the continent's transition to democracy. Dynamic and popular new leaders won resounding new victories in countries as far afield as Kenya in East Africa and Senegal in West Africa, and in many countries in between -- including the continent's economic powerhouse and most populous nation, Nigeria.
However, messier politics around equatorial central Africa remain -- and Gabon a small nation on the equator on the Atlantic coast of central Africa is no exception. In countries like Chad, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, old style African authoritarian rule reigns supreme. It is against this backdrop that on Sunday, 560,000 Gabonese went to the polls to elect a president. The turnout was noticeably low at the 1,990 polling stations in the country.
Oil wealth has kept the economies of this sparsely populated part of Africa afloat. The countries of the region, and especially Gabon, have a higher than average per capita income. Indeed, Gabon is the wealthiest country per capita in all Africa south of the Sahara -- with the notable exception of South Africa.
Omar Bongo has ruled the country with an iron fist. He belongs to the old tradition of African so- called "benevolent dictators", dishing out favours to ensure that his government's writ runs. Indeed, the septuagenarian has ruled the oil-rich West African country since 1967. He was re-elected in 1973, 1979, 1986, 1993 and 1998.
Other African countries have opted to limit the terms of their presidents in office. In Gabon they can go on and on. A constitutional amendment hurriedly pushed through parliament in 2003, did away with the number of times a Gabonese president can be elected. Bongo is impervious to criticism -- both local and foreign.
Bongo has been Gabon's bridge to a wider world. He officially became a Muslim in 1973 and performed the hajj to Mecca a year later. His country, which produces 290 barrels of oil a day, joined the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and strengthened ties with oil-rich Gulf Arab states. The vast majority of the Gabonese population is either Christian or animist, only a fraction of the 1.3 million Gabonese are Muslim -- a mere five per cent.
For his part, Bongo says that he is determined to advance along the path of modernisation and reform. However, corruption and nepotism are rife.
The excessive power of the president is to blame. Not only is Bongo the country's most powerful man, but he is also by far the richest.
Record international oil prices are fuelling an economic boom in Gabon. But much of this oil money inevitably pours into the pockets of President Bongo and his hangers-on. For all its current gains, a considerable segment of the Gabonese people are living below the poverty line. The pace of agricultural growth is lagging behind the country's neighbours and diversification beyond the oil sector is a far from realised goal. The country's vast timber reserves are being depleted by unscrupulous Western logging companies.
Still, unlike most other African countries Gabon is not desperate for debt-relief packages, development aid and humanitarian handouts.
But things are not all rosy. Unemployment among the young is rife. The Gabonese president's initially slow and inept response to rampant unemployment and poverty has not endeared him to his people. Despite these pressing problems and a lack of clarity over the country's political future, the opposition has persistently failed to unseat President Bongo.
As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, it was widely expected that Bongo would win another seven-year term in office. His four challengers were trailing far behind Bongo as initial ballot tallies showed the incumbent Gabonese president well ahead of his rivals. Zacharie Myboto, founder of the Gabonese Union for Democracy and Development after serving in Bongo's government for 21 years, has long aimed for the presidency, but stands little chance of winning. Augustin Moussavou King of the Gabonese Socialist Party and Serg Christian Margoa of the Rally of Democrats stand slim chance of winning as well. Another presidential hopeful, Pierre Mamboundou, brandished the slogan: "Forty years, that's enough." He, too, is highly unlikely to unseat Bongo.
Bongo heads a coalition of some 40 political parties.
The capital Libreville was agog with speculation about the final tally -- most Gabonese expected a sweeping victory for Bongo. The president's enemies are many, though. When Bongo restored multi-party democracy in 1990, the air was thick with scepticism. The scepticism continues today. Not a single opposition party has come into office after winning elections.
Gabonese soldiers have stayed well inside their barracks. The 20,000 police and army unreservedly back Bongo. His largesse and financial clout ensure their loyalty. The civilian opposition is in a sorry state.
This leaves only one excruciatingly painful scenario for the former French colony: Bongo will continue to rule the country until he breathes his last.
Africa's longest serving president is in no hurry to step down. The ruling coalition has its own faction fights. Most of them centre around jostling for position to get closer to the all-powerful president who has promised free potable water and electricity to 100,000 Gabonese households. Oil accounts for some 50 per cent of Gabon's gross domestic product and 80 per cent of its exports. The country is a classic case of oil dependency. Bongo has done next to nothing to lessen this unhealthy dependency on petroleum exports and lopsided economic development. The question is not so much about the Gabonese president's intent to democratise but whether the country can withstand the erosion of his authority.
The impression all this leaves is of a Gabonese president who is far from losing his grip. Africa is moving towards vibrant multi-party democracy. Gabon is not there yet. No matter how magnanimous, the aged Gabonese leader will not be handing over power to the people.


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