/ 27 August 2009

Security tight as Gabon eyes post-Bongo era

Gabon’s voters will head to closely guarded polling stations on Sunday to choose a successor to Omar Bongo, the late leader whose 42 years of tight rule brought stability to the central African oil-producer.

While investors play down the risk of major unrest in the coastal nation of 1,5-million, accusations of poll-fixing have been rife and tensions between rival factions could flare as the result is announced early next week.

The front-runner is Bongo’s son Ali Ben, whose victory would be welcomed by markets as a sign that investor-friendly policies will continue, but which critics would view as a move to the dynastic rule seen elsewhere on the continent.

”We will be in an explosive situation,” Gabonese political analyst Wenceslas Mamboundou said of insults being traded between Bongo’s ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) and a packed field of 22 contenders.

”If the opposition wins, what will be the attitude of the PDG? Will they accept? And what will be the attitude of the opposition if Ali Ben Bongo wins?” he asked.

About 3 000 polling booths around the country will be placed under guard on Sunday. The Interior Ministry requested on Thursday that voters return to their homes after casting their ballot — contradicting an appeal by some candidates for citizens to keep watch on booths for any irregularities.

”We shall apply the law, all the law and nothing but the law, with all the firmness that events will require,” Interior Minister Jean-Francois Ndogou warned.

An oil nation since the 1960s and one of the few sub-Saharan nations to have launched a Eurobond, Gabon has seen wealth unrivalled by most neighbours, with per capita output of $14 000 — compared to just $300 in nearby Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ethnic spectrum
But Bongo’s death seems to spell the end of an era.

His death from a heart attack in a Barcelona clinic came weeks after French investigators launched a probe into his massive personal fortune, which included a stable of luxury cars and properties in Paris and the French Riviera.

Under President Nicolas Sarkozy, France had already said it wanted to review the cosy ”Francafrique” network of ties binding it to its former African colonies, typified by Gabon.

Just as crucially, the oil is running out and many Gabonese realise they have never reaped the benefit.

”I need you all to become small bosses, to become entrepreneurs,” Ali Ben Bongo told a rally in the oil city of Port Gentil last week, promising to wean the economy off the oil proceeds which for now account for half of national output.

Most of his rivals are campaigning on a mix of anti-corruption and social justice platforms, including PDG veterans such as Zacharie Myboto and Andre Mba Obame.

Of the main candidates, only Pierre Mamboundou of the opposition Union of Gabonese People has no history of ties with Omar Bongo, who defeated him in 1998 and 2005 elections.

With the profusion of candidates risking a split in the opposition vote, Ben Bongo — who has run by the far the best-financed campaign — is tipped to come in winner.

But even if he wins and rides out any unrest after the vote, analysts say he may struggle to emulate his father’s tactic in securing support from across Gabon’s ethnic mix by carefully distributing key ministerial portfolios.

”The real question is whether his leadership will stand the test of time,” said IHS Global Insight analyst Kissy Agyeman-Togobo. ”With Gabon’s oil output in decline, he may find it more of a challenge to appease or co-opt oppositionists.” — Reuters