Tag Archives: Gabon

Central Africa region 2018 – Autocratic entrenchment and increasing instability

The Central Africa region remains a haven for autocratic and semi-autocratic regimes, in sharp contrast to West Africa, and the situation did not improve in 2018. The sub-region is home to the world’s three longest serving presidents: Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea (39 years in power), Cameroon’s Paul Biya (36 years), and Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso (34 years). Moreover, Idriss Déby (27 years) of Chad is not far behind, and the Bongo family has ruled Gabon for over 50 years. Faustin-Archange Touadéra of the Central African Republic (CAR) is the only president elected in legitimately competitive polls, in 2016, although his government now has limited control over national territory beyond the capital Bangui.

All six countries, member states of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC by its French acronym), are ranked “not free” by Freedom House, and score below continental averages on the Mo Ibrahim governance index. The six countries share a common currency – the Central African CFA franc – which was first introduced during colonial times in the five francophone territories making up the Federation of Equatorial French Africa (AEF). Equatorial Guinea, the only former Spanish colony member of CEMAC, adopted the CFA in 1984. Only Congo and CAR have experienced brief periods of electoral democracy in the 1990s, before autocrats returned to power in 1997 and 2003, respectively.

The sub-region experienced further autocratic entrenchment and growing instability in 2018. Biya of Cameroon won a seventh term in elections that lacked credibility. Cameroon also continues its descent towards civil war, as the crisis in the Anglophone regions of the country deepens. Anglophone separatists recently created their own crypto-currency, known as AmbaCoin. In Equatorial Guinea, Vice-president Teodorín Obiang who is the son of the current president was promoted major-general as the family closed ranks after an alleged coup attempt in 2017. Teodorín recently presided over a cabinet meeting, confirming fears he is positioned to replace his father soon. In Congo, Sassou Nguesso’s son Denis Christel, one of 10 family members elected to the National Assembly in 2017, was rumored to be preparing to run against his father in 2021. In Gabon, Ali Bongo has been ill for months and the constitutional court took it upon itself to amend the constitution to delineate responsibilities between the prime minister and the vice-president in the event of a “temporary” absence of the president. Déby pushed through a new constitution for Chad that enhanced presidential powers and eliminated the post of prime minister (see previous blog post here). The CAR is increasingly ungovernable, and various armed groups have spread violence to new regions of the country.

Prospects for replacing one-man or dynastic rule in the sub-region through democratic elections are bleak and stand in sharp contrast to democratic progress in neighboring West Africa, where only Togo is left with a president serving more than two terms. Unlike the successful alternation of power that has taken place in 14 of 15 West African countries member states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), in the last decade, the Central Africa sub-region is a sobering example of strong-man rule in fragile states that could implode into violence.

The situation is not much better when expanding the analysis to the larger Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), which in addition to the CEMAC countries includes Angola, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and São Tomé and Príncipe. São Tomé and Príncipe is the only country in the larger Central Africa region that regularly holds credible elections and is rated as “free” by Freedom House. The region overall has had limited democratic experiences and ECCAS lacks the equivalent of the 2001 ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance. In contrast to the evolving democratic norms and regional institutions with increasing clout seen in West Africa, Central Africa remains at the mercy of personal networks among autocratic heads of state focused on mutual elite support.

The road to inclusive and credible elections in Central Africa remains long and tortuous, and 2018 has thus far not been a good year for the region. It remains to be seen whether the presidential elections in the DRC on December 23 will break the pattern and result in a peaceful transfer of executive power and more accountable governance [see previous blog post on the DRC here]. The outlook is far from promising, with a worsening political situation and increasing violence as election day approaches.

Gabon – President Bongo on the road to 2016, between continuity and change

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.