07 Dec 2009 18:41:12 GMT Source: Reuters by David Lewis
LIBREVILLE, Dec 7 (Reuters) - Gabon's President Ali Ben Bongo must move quickly to ensure a wave of goodwill helps him fund and implement lofty election promises, while also tackling simmering social tensions in his first months in power.
Gabon's divided opposition leaders, who say Ben Bongo's Aug. 30 victory was rigged, are trying to forge a unified party ahead of parliamentary elections in 2011 but will struggle if Ben Bongo delivers on just a handful of his pledged reforms.
The death in June of longstanding ruler Omar Bongo left a void in the former French colony, one of central Africa's more stable countries and an oil-producer that has successfully issued a 2017 Eurobond <362420AA9=RRPS>.
His son Ali's victory sparked violent protests but most Gabonese are, for now, ready to give him some time to implement vows to curb corruption, slash bureaucracy and modernise the nation.
"What did the Gabonese want? They just wanted a change in the way Gabon is run. They just wanted someone who would tackle social issues ... What is new is that (something) is actually being done," said Wenceslas Mamboundou, a political analyst at Gabon's main university.
Initial steps, including salary caps for the heads of parastatals, an audit of civil servants and promises to build roads, hospitals and housing have gone down well in Libreville.
"(Ben Bongo) doesn't have any choice. He knows he doesn't have most of the voters behind him. He has no choice but to win popular legitimacy," Mamboundou added, referring to Ben Bongo's victory with just 42 percent of the vote. His two nearest rivals both scored 25 percent each.
"PERFECT STORM" A newly assembled team of ministers and administrators is having to frantically draw up a budget to pay for it all, as well as tackle rising prices of food and drinks, a strike by teachers and rolling electricity blackouts in the capital. Another promise, to increase from 80,000 CFA francs ($181.4) to 150,000 FCA the minimum salary is also being closely watched.
"He's come in and promised a lot while there are some major social and administrative problems to deal with," one diplomat said. "He's facing a perfect storm and will have to start producing something otherwise he will become very unpopular."
Protests against Ben Bongo's victory turned violent, especially in the oil hub town of Port Gentil. But much of the violence was opportunistic looting or motivated by anti-French feeling, and few observers see an early repeat of that unrest. However a potential threat to his leadership could come from the ballot, with plans by Gabon's splintered opposition to create a single rival party to Bongo's Gabonese Democratic Party in time for end-2011 parliamentary elections.
"We need to put our egos in our pockets ... I want us to create one big party," said ex-Bongo ally and interior minister Andre Mba Obame, who came third as an independent candidate.
The plan is in its infancy and second placed veteran opposition leader Pierre Mamboundou has yet to sign up, but Mba Obame is touring the country to tell supporters of his plan.
Moves by Ben Bongo to remove some previously untouchable regional barons within the PDG from positions of power could prompt them to leave the party and join the opposition.
Faustin Boukoubi, Secretary General of the PDG, acknowledged those moves had created frustrations within the party. But he and others believe that life in the PDG would still be more attractive for them than joining a divided opposition, and that their constituencies will feel less aggrieved about losing "their man" in Libreville if they see social gains.
"If the president tackles these, he will win their support and the opposition will be in trouble," said analyst Mamboundou.
However Ben Bongo is not seen as politically astute as his father and questions remain as to how he will react if he ultimately fails to secure broad popular support. Some point to media clamp downs and the strong showing of military appointees in the presidential entourage of the former defence minister as a sign he might feel the need to resort to more heavy-handed tactics to shore up his rule.
"If he doesn't manage anything by the elections, we'll head to a dictatorship because he will have to impose himself," Mamboundou said.