Gabon Faces Challenge to Reform
By Jeffrey Young
07 July 2006
The West African coastal state of Gabon has had only one president
for nearly 40 years. Omar Bongo Ondimba, Africa's longest serving
head of state, has presided during decades of oil-based prosperity
that may not be sustainable.
Libreville, Gabon. The shops in the capital of the Gabonese
Republic, Libreville, are filled with expensive goods from Europe and
Asia. Government ministry buildings are plush and built on a grand
scale. The administration of Gabon's President, El Hadj Omar Bongo
Ondimba is stable, with key posts filled with his family members.
Per capita income last year was estimated at $6,800, in large part
because the country's population is only some 1.4 million people. On
the surface, Gabon appears to be a success story. But beneath that
veneer are problems with fair governance and the country's economic
The Bongo Strategy. Omar Bongo was elevated from the post of vice-
president in 1967 when Gabon's first President, Leon M'Ba died
suddenly. Former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria Princeton Lyman, who is
now with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, says that
along with the presidency, Mr. Bongo inherited M'Ba's taste for
autocratic rule. "He's part of an earlier generation of African
leaders who are virtually 'presidents for life.' You've got a very,
very dominant government [political] party, and an opposition that
haven't really got their feet on the ground and been able to operate
very effectively. So all the decisions are really made by the
president. There isn't a lively [i.e., independent] parliament," says
The existence of a political opposition in Gabon is a relatively
recent phenomenon. In 1968, Omar Bongo declared Gabon to be a one-
party state, controlled by his Gabonese Democratic Party, the P.D.G.
In the early 1990s, President Bongo reverted back to a multi-party
But Mark Rosenberg at the Freedom House human rights monitoring group
in New York says the resumption of multiple parties in Gabon was
actually a cynical ploy by Omar Bongo to maintain control of the
state. "There's certainly an element of 'divide and conquer' here.
You have 35 registered political parties in Gabon. 29 of them belong
to an alliance with Bongo's P.D.G. The P.D.G. has been in power
since independence [from France in 1960]. That's an overwhelming
political dominance," says Rosenberg. "Even if these parties in the
alliance decide to buck [i.e., oppose] Bongo or his party, they
wouldn't have much space to do so."
This can be seen in the country's last three presidential elections,
in which Mr. Bongo's vote totals have gone from 51 percent in 1993 to
72 percent last year. Meanwhile, the P.D.G. - controlled parliament
has abolished presidential term limits, removing an obstacle for Mr.
Bongo's continued rule.
Within the government, Omar Bongo has prevented challenges to his
rule by putting his family members or others very close to him in key
positions such as Minister of Defense. That post is held by his son,
Ali, who many analysts expect to claim the presidency when his father
dies or leaves office, despite a constitution that does not place him
directly in the line of succession.
Jennifer Cooke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
in Washington says along with avoiding strife within the government,
Gabon has largely been spared the inter-ethnic and class-related
problems that affect other African states. "Bongo himself is from a
minority group, which may take away some of that [inter-ethnic]
friction. Another point is that given the wealth of the country and
the fairly high per capita income, everybody is doing well enough
that it doesn't really come down to the hard core divisions [i.e.,
between 'haves' and 'have-nots.']," says Cooke.
Gabon's high level of government spending during Mr. Bongo's rule has
been maintained even during times like the 1990s, when oil prices
plunged, by borrowing massive amounts of money from international
lenders. As a result, the country's public debt level is now nearly
30 percent of its gross domestic product.
Gabon has enjoyed oil-based prosperity since the late 1960s. But
Keith Myers, with the Royal Institute for International Affairs in
London, says that economic underpinning won't last
forever. "Gabon's 'Achilles heel' is that oil production peaked a few
years ago and is [now] on a steadily declining track. And so has
G.D.P. As a result, poverty is starting to get worse, and the
government badly needs to implement a diversification policy to wean
itself away from oil dependence," says Myers.
Gabon's oil production last year was about 268,000 barrels per day,
down by a third from its peak in the mid-1990s. Many industry
experts say its reserves could be depleted in less than a decade.
C.S.I.S. analyst Jennifer Cooke says that, so far, Gabon's president
and his government have not adequately prepared for a future without
oil. "Bongo is not looking toward 2015, when the country is going to
really have to deal with declining oil revenue," says Cooke. "Yes,
tourism is one thing [i.e., a way to replace oil revenues]. The
logging industry and the timber industry - - there's likely to be a
great deal more demand there down the line. And Gabon is rich in
precious timbers. But there hasn't really to date been the
investment in other sectors that are going to diversify the economy
and carry the country through [this transition from an oil-based
Omar Bongo Ondimba is more than 70 years old and many observers
predict that he may not live to the end of his current term in 2012.
But so long as he remains in power, they say that the status quo in
Gabon will continue and that solving the country's problems may be a
task faced by his successor.