Opinion: What next for Gabon?

WASHINGTON — After the rule of Omar Bongo in Gabon for 42 years, it is difficult to imagine the country's future without the national father figure. Yet the future depends on finding a new leader who can satisfy competing economic, ethnic and political demands.

The news of Gabonese President Omar Bongo’s death was announced Monday by the official state media with a mixture of disbelief and distress. After first denying and fiercely criticizing French media reports of the autocrat’s demise, government leaders grudgingly acknowledged what the rest of the world had known for almost a full day. Days later the presidential website still made no mention of the fact that Bongo is no more.

On Wednesday Gabon's Senate speaker Rose Francine Rogombe, 66, was sworn in as acting head of state at an official ceremony in Libreville. She is charged with making the preparations for new national elections within 30 to 45 days.

Shortly after the official death announcement, the minister of defense, Ali-Ben Bongo, 50, who is also the president’s son and heir apparent, appeared on national television to appeal for “calm and serenity.” In a tacit recognition that not all of his fellow citizens would be be receptive to this conciliatory message, young Bongo also deployed troops at key points throughout the capital, Libreville, and sealed the country’s borders.

The 1.5 million Gabonese have every right to be nervous. As long as Bongo held sway over his nation like a medieval monarch, oil-rich Gabon was spared the bloodshed and chaos of many other countries in the region.

However, there is an abundance of examples of nations imploding following the end of long-term autocratic rule, most notoriously Yugoslavia upon the death of Marshall Tito. Closer to Gabon, when in 1997 long-time dictator Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko fell ill (and died later that year, like Bongo, of cancer), the country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo descended into a spiral of war, death and devastation from which it has yet to recover.

Likewise, upon the death of Houphouet Boigny, who was president of Cote d’Ivoire for 33 years, the West African oasis of peace and prosperity was wracked by war and misrule. Arguably Somalia’s metamorphosis from nation-state to no man’s land can be traced to the end of Siad Barre’s 22-year reign.

Gabon’s stability has come at a cost. According to the U.S. State Department, arbitrary arrest, police brutality, overcrowded prisons and a dysfunctional judicial system are persistent problems. Freedom of speech and of the press are largely fictions, and corruption is endemic from the top down. And like much of sub-Saharan Africa, there are ethnic tensions. President Bongo inordinately favored his own ethnic group, the Bateke tribe, which has been a long-standing source of friction with the scores of other ethnic groups, in particular the major ones like the Miene, Bapunu and Fang, who make up the largest percentage of the population.

The apprehension of the Gabonese takes two contradictory forms. First, there is concern that the power vacuum left by the old man will be filled by opportunists from his entourage, possibly led by Ali-Ben, his sister Patience (her father’s chief of staff) or her husband the minister of foreign affairs, meaning the maintenance of the inefficient, corrupt status quo.

The other worry is, ironically, that the ancien regime will fall, but violently through a coup d’état or civil unrest. Rumors of a military takeover have been circulating for weeks.

Theoretically, there is another, better way. According to Gabon's constitution, the president of the Senate will serve as interim national leader, until elections are organized within 30 to 45 days. In theory, the elections will allow the Gabonese to choose a new leader in democratic fashion. In reality, though, Gabon has no real tradition of free elections, the political opposition is moribund, and there is insufficient time for parties to properly mobilize and campaign.

The reaction of the international community during this transitional phase will be critical, and Gabonese are closely watching their country’s traditional patron, France. President Sarkozy’s elegiac description of Bongo as a “great and loyal friend” will have raised eyebrows among those who believe that Gabon’s relations with former colonial master have been a bit too claustrophobic.

Ideally, Bongo’s successor will recognize that Gabon is long overdue for a serious national dialogue about governance, ethnicity and wealth distribution. Bringing inclusivity and transparency to a government that has lacked both would be a start. Certainly the troubled neighborhood of central Africa does not need another failed state.

Chris Hennemeyer, vice president of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (Ifes) has lived and worked in Africa for over 20 years, and is currently based in Washington, D.C.

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