African business, politics and lifestyle
Bongo, the son, out to make his mark
Omar Bongo’s name was on an impressive collection of public buildings — the senate, a university and a stadium, to name just a few — by the time he died in June after over 40 years as Gabon’s president.
His son Ali Bongo Ondimba is now keen to make his own mark after winning a disputed election in August.
Bongo has started with a flurry of ambitious promises to deliver both continuity and change after his father’s rule left Gabon peaceful but mired in corruption, inefficiency and still very much dependent on oil as reserves are coming to an end.
Creating an “Emerging Gabon” has become the catch phrase and officials faithfully reiterate government priorities of diversifying the oil-driven economy into one where funds will also be generated by green business, service industries and increasing local manufacturing to create jobs and boost the economy.
Bongo’s cost-cutting measures have seen some top officials lose perks and take pay cuts while the cabinet has been slashed in size. Government employees are scrambling to their desks to make sure they are included in an audit of a bloated civil service, which was long used to divvy up jobs amongst the country’s ethnic groups, thereby undermining potential rivals.
Detractors say the new president had no choice. Thousands of people took to the streets to take part in violent demonstrations against his victory in the August poll so he is under pressure to deliver. Strikes and rolling power cuts are adding to the pressure. None of these ideas are new, they add, citing numerous speeches by his father on needs to revitalize the ailing country. Questions have also been asked about how the new team will pay for everything it has promised.
Supporters hit back, saying that Bongo — who was once known as “Ben Bongo” but dropped it as part of efforts to ensure he is not just seen as his father’s son – has already proved that he will deliver. There will be more, they add, saying the new Bongo represents Gabon’s next generation, not least in his readiness to lead Gabon out of its notoriously cozy relationship with French government and business.
So how do Bongo’s promises stack up? Is it realistic to talk of an “Emerging Gabon”? Will he really be able to risk alienating powerful people by pushing through a thorough reform agenda?
A week spent being bounced from one government department to another suggested bureaucracy still rules in Gabon. How quickly will Bongo be able to change a system that was designed to keep his clan in power? Is it really the end of the tight relationship between Paris and Libreville?
What will happen if Bongo fails? Can a real opposition emerge to challenge the ruling party or will they remain weak and divided?