What Lets Gabon's Government Go Unchecked

6 MINS READMay 20, 2016 | 09:16 GMT
What Lets Gabon's Government Go Unchecked
Gabonese President Ali-Ben Bongo Ondimba (L) and French President Francois Hollande shake hands in Paris.

Worrying signs are beginning to emerge from Gabon as the country moves closer to its presidential election in August. Like many of its peers, the Central African oil producer has been hit hard by the slump in global energy prices, and the resulting strain on the Gabonese budget is starting to take a political toll. With less money to secure support and more rivals to contend with, the Gabonese Democratic Party may have trouble protecting its rule and the system that has kept it in power for over half a century.

Gabon's economy is in bad shape. The effect of declining oil reserves over the past two decades has been compounded by the more recent drop in energy prices. Because hydrocarbons account for more than 50 percent of Gabon's gross domestic product, and the sale of hydrocarbons accounts for 80 percent of its export revenue, the country is vulnerable to fluctuations in oil and natural gas markets. Gabon's debt has more than doubled amid the downturn in oil prices to reach 43 percent of GDP, and it is expected to rise above 50 percent by the end of the year. The government's funding problems will likely be made worse by the country's currency. The stability of the Central African franc, which is pegged to the euro, prevents Gabonese import costs from rising rapidly. That stability is a double-edged sword, however, because it prevents the government from using depreciation to counteract the effects of low oil prices, leading to a further reduction in government revenue. 

Normally, dwindling government coffers would prompt cutbacks in spending. But trimming the budget ahead of presidential and legislative elections is not an ideal move for Gabonese President Ali-Ben Bongo Ondimba, who will be seeking to shore up support in the months ahead. As Bongo continues to avoid unpopular belt tightening, he will likely run up a larger fiscal deficit in the process. Gabon's bloated public-wage bill and spending spree in preparation for the Africa Cup of Nations tournament, which the country will host in January 2017, will only add to the strain on the Gabonese budget.

Discontent Mounts as the Economy Crumbles

The country's weakening economy is causing political tensions to flare, so much so that it prompted Gabon's chief mediator, Laure Olga Gondjout, to warn May 7 that the country is facing "a crisis on multiple fronts." She pointed to the fissures that have emerged in social dialogue, as well as to foreigners' flight from the country and reports that some Gabonese citizens are preparing to leave as well. Meanwhile, an unprecedented number of members of Bongo's ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) have defected to the opposition in the past few months. Some of the defectors have even decided to run against Bongo in August. The president also faces a daunting challenger in Jean Ping, a former diplomat and chairman of the African Union Commission who is campaigning for the presidency.

The defections may signal trouble on the horizon for the Bongo administration. The PDG government, which the Bongo family has controlled since Gabon's independence in 1960, historically has relied on oil revenue to pacify any resistance to its rule. But because the country's oil production has been falling since it peaked in the mid-1990s, the ruling party now has less money to keep political grievances from festering. The departure of several old-guard PDG officials could indicate that the cash-strapped government is starting to lose its grip over the Gabonese political system.

The French Connection

The outcome of Gabon's predicament will be determined, in part, by its historical ties to France. The former French colony for decades was considered a critical component of France's strategy to gain energy independence. In exchange for political patronage, Gabon provided France with oil and uranium in addition to other materials such as manganese and lumber. Together, Gabon's loyalty and strategic importance ensured that France maintained a strong presence in the Central African state. Though its significance to France has diminished in recent years as the French economy has diversified, Gabon retains a strong bond with its onetime colonial ruler. Thousands of French expatriates live in Gabon, and France has a permanent military base in Libreville staffed with at least 450 French soldiers.

Bongo's father, El Hadj Omar Bongo, served as Gabon's president for nearly 42 years and was a master at playing different elements of the French state off one another to gain concessions for his country. When he died in 2009, his son — who had served as both foreign and defense minister under his father — ran to replace him. Though the official election results named Ali Bongo the victor with 41.7 percent of the vote, credible allegations of fraud arose and continue to taint his presidency to this day.

In August, Bongo will be pitted against several candidates who contest the legitimacy of his rule. Ping, widely considered the candidate best positioned to defeat Bongo, has accused the president of being born outside Gabon — an automatic disqualification from the race. Bongo, in turn, has likened Ping's mention of "eliminating the cockroaches" to the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust, igniting controversy among the public. Bongo and his party will no doubt mobilize the massive state resources at their disposal to secure a victory, particularly since an electoral loss would jeopardize not only Bongo's rule but also the political system that has run the country from its infancy.

As the campaign heats up and dissatisfaction with the economy grows, Gabonese citizens are hardening their stances for or against the president. The polarization of Gabonese society could lead to unrest in the wake of the elections, no matter their outcome. If it does, France's role in Gabon could mean the difference between peaceful transition and further discontent. France relies less on Ali Bongo's Gabon than it did on his father's, and its apathy toward the current president could result in inaction if allegations of voter fraud arise from the August elections.

Either way, Bongo's opponents will be limited in their ability to provoke widespread disorder and political paralysis in Gabon. The opposition has not united behind a single challenger to the Bongo family; instead, the field is divided among several candidates. Moreover, opposition figures, including Ping, often have little external support, making armed rebellion highly improbable. The PDG, backed by the resources of a nation, can easily clamp down on dissent if it chooses, much like the Republic of the Congo did after its elections in March.

Still, in the unlikely event that a disgruntled opposition could instigate a rebellion following an electoral loss, it would be difficult for the French government to stand by and do nothing. France could be forced to act to safeguard its interests in Gabon, the most important of which are stability and the safety of French nationals and supply lines. But short of a significant threat to Gabon's security, Paris is unlikely to intervene in its affairs, giving Bongo free rein to assure the survival of his presidency.

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