/ 15 June 2012

Stage set for Gabon’s debutant

Richard Attias
Richard Attias

As the story goes, New York Forum Institute founder and chairperson Richard Attias was in Dakar, Senegal, four years ago, when the then Gabonese defence minister Ali Bongo Ondimba asked him when was he going to organise an economic forum in Africa.

Attias, a Moroccan-born French citizen, who is most famous in France for being the man who stole Cécilia, the wife of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, was in the business of huge global events such as the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The New York Forum Institute was established in 2009 and is a non-profit foundation based in New York, where Attias now lives. As one French journalist sarcastically commented: “You can’t carry on living in France after you’ve stolen the president’s wife.”

The institute helps business leaders and companies to share knowledge, perceptions, trends and ideas. Its findings and work are highlighted and debated at its annual event, the New York Forum.

Fast forward to June 2012 and Ali Bongo Ondimba is now the president of Gabon. He took over after the death of his father, Omar Bongo Ondimba, on June 8 2009 at the age of 73, the leader of Gabon for 42 years.

In August that year, Bongo won the national election with 42% of the vote, which was disputed by the opposition and resulted in riots.

The Constitutional Court rubber-stamped the victory after a recount and Bongo was sworn in on October 16. But allegations that the election was rigged continue to plague him, both at home and on the continent.

He has reduced the size of his Cabinet significantly, combining ministries to centralise power. He has also set up many government agencies that answer to the presidency and not to the Cabinet or Parliament, reportedly to allow difficult decisions to be made, free of red tape and bureaucracy.

Representatives of the Gabonese government insist the agencies are fully accountable and their books are available for inspection, but critics of Bongo, such as environmental activist Marc Ona Essangui say that these “parallel agencies” are problematic.

“They cannot be controlled by the government, they cannot be controlled by the Cabinet, yet these agencies have the biggest budgets,” he recently told the Financial Times.
Bongo’s grand plan for the economy, dubbed “Emerging Gabon”, is to diversify and move away from the state’s over-reliance on oil revenue (See “Small country thinks big”).

Global investors
It is clear that Gabon is going to need large investments and is looking at public/private partnerships involving global investors. So what better way to announce that you are open for business than a professionally choreographed and stage-managed debutants’ ball, hosted under the guise of a pan-African think-tank on investment and trade in Africa?
Enter Attias and the New York Forum Africa.

There were many heads of state, government ministers and business people from all over the continent prowling the corridors of the New York Forum Africa in Libreville this past weekend, but there was only one debutant coming out at this ball and that was Gabon, and more specifically Bongo.

The event also paid tribute to Bongo’s father, being opened on the third anniversary of his death.

Many times Attias was asked “Why Libreville?”, to which he generally responded “Why not?”A more honest answer would have probably been “Because they are paying”.

Both Attias and the Gabonese government rebuffed questions about the cost of the event and were angered by suggestions in the press that it cost billions of euros to host.

It was also clear that not everyone in Gabon was buying into Bongo’s grand plan and, last week, when the wheelchair-bound Ona tried to hold a “counter forum of indignants”, he and other activists were arrested.

World-class leader
The Gabonese government was determined not to let the incident affect the success of its giant investment-seeking party and dodged questions by foreign journalists about Ona’s arrest.

They wanted the about 140 foreign journalists gathered in Libreville to focus on the spectacular show Attias had choreographed with his team.

It included trotting out movie stars such as Robert de Niro to have a superficial conversation about his impressions of Gabon, entertaining the crowds with pan-African music stars such as Salif Keita and Angelique Kidjo and allowing celebrity economist Nouriel Roubini and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus to address the 600 delegates who had flown in from all over the world.

The sycophantic praising of the Bongos was incessant: Benin’s president and African Union chairperson Thomas Yayi Boni referred to Omar Bongo Ondimba as an “illustrious president” and “a founding father of our continent” and called Ali Bongo Ondimba “my friend and brother”.

South African arms dealer Ivor Ichikowitz, a panellist at the forum, called Bongo “a true global visionary” and Jerry Inzerillo, the chief executive of IMG Artists and former chief executive of the Kerzner Entertainment Group in South Africa, referred to the president as a “world-class leader”.

At the opening press conference, Attias said three key recommendations would come out of every session of the forum and these would form a road map to be taken to the G20 meeting on June 18 in Mexico and the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development on June 20.

But at the final press conference, both Attias and the Gabonese government clammed up, stating that deals had been signed but the details could not be released. Even the road map was not made public.

For many cynical journalists at the event, it was the last straw in a weekend of fudging, reinforcing the point that the event had been about attracting investment to Gabon and rebuilding the image of the country and its president – a costly public relations exercise at the expense of the people of Gabon.

Small country thinks big
Ali Bongo Ondimba’s grand plan for the Gabonese economy is to diversify and move away from the state’s over-reliance on oil revenue, which brings in 51% of the country’s gross domestic product.

The country is blessed with 22-million hectares of forest, one million hectares of exploitable arable land and 13 national parks.

According to the government, Bongo’s reform plans have already drawn in $4-billion in foreign direct investment between 2010 and 2012.

The country’s GDP in 2009 when Bongo came to power was $9.98-billion. Since then, Gabon has gone from a growth rate of  -1.4% to an average growth rate of 5.6% between 2010 and 2012.

However, for Gabon to reach its stated target of becoming an emerging economy by 2025, it needs to invest in massive infrastructure roll-out and develop its human capital.

The National Agency of Public Works is in charge of most of the 175 planned infrastructure projects, which are expected to cost $20-billion.

For a country with a population of about 1.5-million people, a third of whom are said to be foreign nationals, this is extremely ambitious and will need foreign investment. – Lloyd Gedye

Lloyd Gedye was a guest of the Gabonese presidency