African business, politics and lifestyle
Gabon — Africa’s least African country?
Tucked between Cameroon and Congo Republic on Africa’s Atlantic coast is Gabon, a country much unlike its neighbours.
Many other African countries face problems that Gabon’s President Ali Bongo has the luxury of not needing to worry about.
Domestic insurgencies and armed rebel groups, the ruin caused by recent civil war, the presence of al Qaeda, refugees, rapid population growth, an economy dependent on aid rather than exports, an army inclined to overthrow its own president — Gabon is not bedevilled with such troubles.
By contrast, Gabon is a picture of stability and relative wealth, densely forested and lightly populated, with an economy fuelled by rich energy deposits.
But that’s not to say the country is without difficulties.
The oil reserves that provide most of the country’s export income are dwindling, demanding the government does all it can to profit from its other natural resources such as minerals and
timber, a need Bongo recognises.
And while Gabonese per capita gross domestic product of $13,900 is around four times that of its neighbours, most of the country’s wealth is in the hands of a minority. The gap between rich and poor is huge — an issue not yet fully addressed by Bongo, who took over the presidency after his late father’s four decades of rule in elections last year.
For investors, the risks in Gabon are different to the risks in many other African countries.
In Gabon, investors say the main problems are connected with a deadening bureaucracy, slow pace of work and poor infrastructure, rather than worrying about having their contracts torn up, being subject to long, unclear and often politically motivated reviews, or having to deal with sudden changes in government.
The Belinga iron ore deposit is one exception in that the government has said it will review the 2006 contract it signed with a Chinese firm, but it seems unlikely Gabon will strip the Chinese of their rights.
China’s vice-minister of commerce, visiting Gabon last week, spoke about the contract with Bongo. And with the Chinese having promised to build Gabon a “Friendship Stadium” for football matches in the 2012 African Cup of Nations, co-hosting of which is a source of national pride, there will be little appetite for disturbing Sino-Gabonese ties.
Bongo need not worry about domestic opposition. Having blown their chance to take him head on in the presidential election last year, the still disparate opposition parties continue to squabble about their own leadership.
It is difficult to judge approval ratings, and many people are wary of criticising Bongo in public, but there is little sense that street-level discontent is rising, and the Gabonese population is largely unarmed and unradicalised.
Gabon, far more insulated from political instability than any other country in the region, has in Bongo a president who claims to be a reformer, and who appears able to count on international support and patience as he attempts to modernise his country’s system of government.
It’s no small challenge, effectively ending 40 years of patronage without denouncing his father’s tenure, and shifting from that system to accountable, progressive government. But Bongo has a chance. Given his country’s advantages, he will have no excuses if he fails.