Gabon does not often make the headlines. Yet the country has changed in many ways since President Ali Bongo Ondimba took power after his father Omar Bongo Ondimba passed away in 2009, having served nearly 42 years in office. At the time of his death, Omar Bongo was the longest-serving ruler in the world, outside of royalty. A few months after his father’s passing, Ali Bongo was elected in a contested presidential poll which he won with 42% of the votes (Gabon does not have a presidential run-off), well under his father’s score of 79% in 2005. Ali Bongo (ABO) faced off against several contenders from within the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) who resigned from the party and ran as independents after the PDG designated ABO as the party candidate. His below 50% score in the poll, despite irregularities and allegations of vote rigging, was symptomatic of the challenges ABO faced and continues to face in imposing himself as the heir to his father’s rule.
Since taking power, Ali Bongo has sought to distance himself from the patronage system of his father and to recast himself as a business-oriented, globalized, modern president. The presidency’s webpage has up-to-date information, including a candid discussion of the Mo Ibrahim Index’s most recent assessment of Gabon; the website also features links to ABO’s facebook page and to a form for sending messages to the president. In January 2014, Ali Bongo initiated an anti-corruption campaign – operation ‘main propres’ (clean hands) – which includes an audit of state expenditures during his father’s rule. The first head to roll was that of the Secretary General of the Ministry of Mines, Industry and Tourism, Jeannot Kalima. Kalima, a long-time PDG-member, was arrested in August, accused of misappropriating funds earmarked for public infrastructure projects during his time as chief of cabinet for the Minister of Public Works, in the 2000s. In recognition of his reform efforts and support for US foreign policy in the UN, Ali Bongo was invited to a private meeting with President Obama, in 2011.
By some accounts, however, rather than a change in governance practice there has been a renewal of the political elite, with a younger crowd now seated at the table, feasting on public funds. In fact, Gabon’s score on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) declined by one point, from 35 to 34, between 2012 and 2013. This was still an improvement over the 29 point score in 2009, the year Omar Bongo died [the CPI scores countries on a scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean)].
Opposition leaders complain the anti-corruption drive is politically motivated, and aimed at eliminating potential competitors for the 2016 presidential poll. Lending some credibility to the claim that the government does not exactly embrace an active opposition, Freedom House scores indicate that Gabon has regressed from a Partly Free to a Not Free status under ABO, due to government crack-down on private media and opposition demonstrations. One of ABO’s leading opponents is Jean Ping, former chair of the African Union, who earlier this year declared his allegiance to the opposition – where the other leading figures, like Ping himself, are largely ex-PDG stalwarts and regime insiders who have parted ways with the Bongo family since Ali’s rise to the presidency.
Two years out, the 2016 presidential campaign in Gabon is already heating up (presidential mandates are 7 years, with no term limits). Ping has created an alliance with a number of other leaders, the United Opposition Front for Alternation (FOPA). Should FOPA succeed in uniting the opposition behind a single candidate for the next presidential poll, it could pose a formidable challenge for ABO. Ali Bongo’s ambitious investment programs and push for a diversification of the economy away from oil are yet to bear sufficient fruits for the average Gabonese to see a change in his or her living conditions, despite an expected economic growth of 7.8% this year. Should the voters go for “alternation” (and the electoral commission act truly independently), ABO could see his prediction that “I won’t be there as long as my father” come true earlier than he expected.