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New Gabonese Law Allows President to Seek Re-Election Indefinitely - 2003-08-01

The parliament in the oil-rich West African country of Gabon has amended the country's constitution to allow President Omar Bongo to seek re-election indefinitely. His political opponents are outraged, and a new report says despite its oil wealth, Gabon's economic outlook is uncertain.

The Gabonese President is the second-longest-serving president on the continent, having been in office for 35 years. His term could now be even longer.

Under the country's constitution, President Bongo would have had to step down in 2005, when he will be 70-years-old. The constitution was put in place amid pressure for more democracy, when he had already been in office more than 20 years. But now he has had the constitution changed.

President Bongo's Gabonese Democratic Party holds a substantial majority in parliament and had no trouble passing the constitutional changes. Opposition parties denounced the move as a 'constitutional coup.'

But analysts say economic developments in the country are as significant as the political dispute.

This week a regional arm of the United Nations, the Economic Commission for Africa, released an in-depth report on the economic climate across the continent. According to the report, Gabon is struggling to diversify its economy and reduce its dependence on its dwindling oil supply. If it fails, the report says, its high per-capita incomes will continue to fall, and it could lose its envied position as one of Africa's strongest economies.

Africa oil analyst Norval Scott at the World Markets Research Center in London, agrees.

"Non-oil revenues have surpassed oil revenues now for the first time and per-capita income is falling, down from about $4,000 to about $3,000. They have to diversify their non-oil access to revenue, and they just have not done that as yet," he said. " Unless they do that then they are just going to be incredibly in debt because they have borrowed a lot of cash based on their oil revenues but in ten years time that's just not going to be there."

According to Mr. Scott, Gabon's oil resources could run out in 10 years, unless there are more discoveries. He says that is not likely, as the major oil companies are more interested in prospecting in nearby Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea or around the tiny island nation of Sao Tome and Principe.

Analysts say Gabon's leaders must deal with their political dispute and focus on economic development, or the country's position as one of Africa's most prosperous nations could be in jeopardy.