/ 9 June 2009

Gabon’s Senate leader set to assume interim power

Gabon’s government will ask the country’s top court to confirm Senate President Rose Francine Rogombe as interim leader after the death of veteran ruler Omar Bongo, a senior government source said on Tuesday.

The cabinet met to discuss how to fill the power vacuum in the central African oil producing nation following the death on Monday of Bongo, Africa’s longest-serving leader, in a Spanish clinic after more than four decades in office.

”The ministers voted unanimously to turn to the constitutional court, which should confirm the absence of a head of state and hand duties to the Senate president,” the government source told reporters after the meeting, asking not to be named.

Bongo had dominated the political scene in Gabon since taking power in 1967, raising concern about how the transition will be handled.

Soldiers protected key administrative buildings in the capital Libreville, including the prime minister’s office and state television headquarters, but their presence was discreet and the city was calm, with many residents staying at home.

”It’s a period of mourning people are observing. Maybe there will be more tension when they organise new elections, but right now there’s no need to panic,” said one Libreville resident who gave his name as Tatus.

The government has said it will respect the terms of the constitution, under which Rogombe, a Bongo ally in the ruling PDG party, is supposed to organise elections within 45 days of the constitutional court confirming that the position of head of state is vacant.

But analysts say factions within PDG will be jostling to work out who succeeds Bongo, with his son, Defence Minister Ali Ben Bongo, seen as a leading candidate.

Ben Bongo, whose control of the security forces is seen as strengthening his chances of pushing through his succession, called for calm late on Monday in a message broadcast on national television on behalf of the ruling family.

Although there have been some concerns about stability, analysts say that the ruling party is likely to tightly manage the transition at least initially and that Bongo’s successes in easing ethnic tensions will reduce the risk of turmoil.

So dominant was Bongo’s personality over four decades that the opposition has had little opportunity to build much popular support. But the potential for trouble lies more in the risk of fractures within the ruling elite, analysts say.

Ben Bongo could face opposition from his brother-in-law, Foreign Minister Paul Toungui, while African Union Chairman Jean Ping, a long-time Bongo ally, and Vice-President Didjob Divungi Di Ndinge have also been cited as possible successors.

African leaders have paid tribute to Bongo, who took power in Gabon in 1967 and became one of the continent’s richest men, acquiring millions of dollars in cash, luxury homes and cars while much of his country remained poor.

South African President Jacob Zuma said Bongo had ”contributed enormously to the African continent through his involvement in peaceful resolution of conflict” while Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade said he had ”worked all of his life in the service of his country and of Africa”. — Reuters