“Look to Africa, for there a king will be crowned”. This quote from Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican leader of the black self-empowerment movement of the early twentieth century, seems to be unfortunately taken for granted by many illegitimate powerful men in the Black continent. In Gabon, the throne is leading to division and greed.
On August 31th 2016, ballot papers re-elected Ali Bongo as head of state. The opposition contested the results and has been demanding ever since the overthrow of the Bongo dynasty, which has ruled Gabon for half a century. As a result, economic activity dropped, international relationships deteriorated and the Gabonese population gradually lost its ultimate hope in democracy.
Nearly a year later, on June 16th 2017, a commando attacked a local television station in the capital, Libreville, claiming the defeat of the President Ali Bongo Ondimba and reclaiming the victory of Jean Ping, the leader of the opposition. This proves that, a year after the 2016 presidential election in Gabon, tensions are still palpable.
Gabon’s Dutch disease
The Gabonese Republic is located on the equator, on the west coast of Central Africa. With a total area of 270,000 square kilometres and a population of 1.5 million inhabitants, it is one of the most prosperous countries in the area. It has the 4th highest Human Development Index (HDI) among the Sub-Saharan countries, and the 3rd highest GDP per capita in Central Africa.
Indeed, the Gabonese soil is very rich: petroleum, magnesium, iron, and gold have attracted dozens of companies to exploit these natural resources and to invest in Gabon, such as Total and Bolloré, the French international firms. Oil represents about 43% of Gabon’s Gross Domestic Product and 81% of its exportations. With 85% of its territory covered in forests, the Gabonese land provides wood as well.
Nevertheless, and despite all of those resources, Gabon remains a difficult land for local entrepreneurs and for building infrastructure: the World Bank’s 2016 Doing Business report ranked the country 152th out of 189 countries for business creation, which obstructs the diversification of the economy. Moreover, social services are almost inexistent: In 2013, the Mckinsey Global Institute estimated that about a third of the population lived in poverty, and that social needs were hardly provided in 60% of the regions. Four years later, the situation did not improve; it was even aggravated with a deficient political system and lack of citizen participation.
A turbulent political history…
The former French colony has been governed by three presidents since its independence in 1960: The first one, Leon Mba, established monopartism, a stronger presidential system and political repression. After his death in 1967, Omar Bongo rose to power. Even though he banned monopartism from the Gabonese politics in 1990, appearances barely changed. He remained in office until his death in 2009, after 42 years of governing. The third and current president shares the same political party and even the same blood as the previous one: Ali Bongo Ondimba, or Bongo junior, was elected in 2009. His first days in power overcame vain riots due to the population’s burnout.
But for most of the Gabonese population, 2017 was a symbol of change.
“Weakened by familial and political turbulences, the president did not seem to be that untouchable anymore.”
Indeed, the debate regarding the family’s inheritance seemed to highlight the Bongo Dynasty’s corruption. Moreover, Ali Bongo was accused of having forged his Gabonese birth certificate, as some suspected that he was not born as a Gabonese citizen and that he was adopted by his father. Had these accusations been proven to be true, Ali Bongo would have been ousted of the presidential campaign, since being foreign-born is not compatible with the status of President in the Gabonese law.
… that haunts the African country
And yet, the same cyclic scenario occurred again: The population’s fatigue, demonstrated by the low participation rate in the elections (57% of the voters casted their ballots), and its anger exploded when the results were revealed. Violence and despair accompanied international requests and denunciations of a fraudulent election, as reported by local and international medias. The judgement of the European Union and the observers of the United Nations, judgement was requested, since each side was proclaiming their victory, and even though they did notice some irregularities, the two bodies seemed powerless in addressing them. As the Gabonese diaspora massively protested and supported Jean Ping in big western cities, many Gabonese faced repression locally.
The consequences to these events were quite serious: The freeze of internet and social networks, as well as the numerous arrests, created a population consumed by fear and pushed them to hide in their own homes. As a result, internal economic activity almost stopped for many days. After that, even though people started to gradually show their teeth publicly, fear made way to contestation: The Gabonese population organized a massive boycott movement, as people refused to keep their businesses open. Obviously this situation could not last for long, as there is no welfare allowances or social security similar to the systems in France and most of the first world. Nevertheless, tensions lasted, and are still ongoing: Public schools, where classes started fairly late, on the 31th of October, due to the post-electoral crisis, suffered from a four-months-strike from teachers and started operating back again in April 2017.
This economic blow worsened a situation of crisis that has been going on for several years. As a matter of fact, the collapse of oil prices in 2014 and the decrease in exchange reserves weakened the Gabonese economy, who ultimately had to ask for a large support program from the International Monetary Fund in 2016 – just before the elections – as other African countries previously did. This help, according to the international organization, was supposed to produce an economic growth on the mid-term. Results are still doubtful, but it might be too early to draw significant conclusions.
As children finish their eventful schoolyear, their parents now seem to laboriously go back to work.
This has become a typical post-election situation for several decades, as the power of the Bongo dynasty has entrenched. But Gabon is, once again, a country with great resources.
Thanks to the noticeable efforts of the government to protect the Gabonese ecosystem, the country became one of the biggest natural reserves in Africa and in the world.
However, money seems to darken mind-sets. Oil, which is reported to run out by 2025 in Gabon, does not profit the legitimate beneficiaries – the locals. To stop massive emigration of qualified working force and great spirits, change has to come. The country has to become a promise land for its citizens.
By Rose Mba Mébiame