The small, oil-rich country of Gabon might be in line for yet another “managed” family succession of the Bongos. Father and son have been in power for 51 years since 1967.
Now, with President “Ben” Ali Bongo in a hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, his brother, Frederic Bongo, the head of intelligence and supported by hardline generals, is already in charge, operating outside the constitutional provisions, according to reports.
The president arrived in Riyadh to attend the crown prince’s international Future Investment Initiative conference, clearly unwell and shuffling when he was received. A day after the conference opened on October 24, Bongo collapsed and was admitted to hospital. His spokesperson, Ike Nguone, said he was suffering from severe exhaustion. Since then, there has been a blanket on news about his condition in his country.
This has only served to stoke rumours and speculation. The opposition in the capital Libreville, led by his brother-in-law and former African Union Commission chairperson, Dr Jean Ping, issued a “speech to the nation”, asserting that for several months Gabon has been “on a very dangerous autopilot”.
The speculation has been exacerbated by a Cameroon-based television station, able to beam into Gabon, sensationally reporting that Bongo had died on admission to the hospital in Riyadh. For making this incendiary comment, Vision 4 Channel’s licence has been withdrawn for six months.
Several days later, Bongo’s wife, Sylvia, told Agence France Press that he had had a stroke.
The president wields both personal and executive power and his illness has created a similar power struggle among family members following the death of El Hadji Omar Bongo Ondimba on June 8 2009. He had reigned for 42 years and died in a clinic in Barcelona.
News of his death emerged in French newspapers, including Le Monde, but there was a news blackout at home.
What followed was a struggle for power between Bongo’s daughter, Pascaline, who was the adviser to the president and the director of the Cabinet, and her half-brother, Ben Ali, who was the minister of defence. He quickly closed the country’s borders and international airports, ensured that he was the sole candidate of the ruling Parti-Democratique-Gabonais and ultimately secured the presidency by August 2009.
Ben Ali has adopted a democratic posture and has shown some remorse by “giving away” part of the family inheritance.
In August 2016, Ben Ali survived an electoral challenge by Ping. Ping had been one of the longest-serving of Omar’s ministers, with stints in information, finance, mines and foreign affairs in 1999, when he took over from Pascaline.
Ping and Pascaline had a relationship and have two children, although Ping, a Catholic, remained married to his first wife.
Almost a decade later, Ping became the chairperson of the African Union (2008-2012), handing over to South African Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at the end of his term.
In the presidential elections of 2016, Ben Ali barely survived, securing a wafer-thin 49.8% of the poll to Ping’s 48.2%, according to the election commission, which was swiftly confirmed by the Constitutional Court.
Despite this win, helicopter gunships and special forces bombed and attacked the opposition headquarters, forcing Ping and his senior aides to flee. Only intervention by the United Nations and other influential players stopped the government troops from attacking the opposition.
It is evident that, although Ping has emerged as a strong opposition leader and figure, Gabon’s politics need to be opened up more to allow the inclusion of candidates not associated with the one-party state organisation established by Omar in March 1968.
On paper, Ben Ali’s 2016 win was based on an electoral turn-out of 99.9% in a single province, that of Haut-Ogooue, the Bongo family’s home ground, where he allegedly obtained a 95.5% vote. This has continued to be challenged.
With the president incapacitated, the Constitution states that any one of the three arms of government — the executive, legislature and judiciary — can approach the Constitutional Court to confirm that a presidential vacancy exists and the speaker of the National Assembly must be appointed as the interim head of government, pending elections in 45 days.
But no one branch of government has felt confident enough to invoke the constitutional provisions. With their failure to act, Frederic Bongo has seized the opportunity, heralding an extension of the family’s reign — and the Economic Community of West African States and the AU continue to watch as the country’s constitutional provisions are trampled underfoot.
Professor Martin R Rupiya is with the Institute for African Renaissance Studies at Unisa