Gabon's government says it will investigate reports in the local press that officials intended to sell a disputed island to Equatorial Guinea. Analysts say the political scandal stems from uncertainty over the country's role as a regional power.
Two Gabonese newspapers recently published what they said were details of closed-door negotiations in which Gabon's interior minister allegedly offered to sell the island of Mbanie to Equatorial Guinea. The newspapers accused Interior Minister Andre Mba Obame of treason, and called for him to step down.
Now, the Gabonese government says it hopes security services will investigate what it calls false press reports.
Equatorial Guinea and Gabon both claim three uninhabited islands in the Gulf of Guinea, including Mbanie. The islands are believed to sit atop significant deposits of fossil fuels. Both countries' economies heavily depend on oil revenue.
Gabon's foreign affairs minister, Jean Ping, called the news reports distractions. He said the reports weakened Gabon's hand in negotiations between its president, Omar Bongo, and Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea over control of several islands in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea.
An analyst for Global Insight, a London-based research group, Adrien Lariou, says what has been surprising about the affair is that it took over a week-and-a-half for government officials to react to the reports.
Lariou says that delay probably indicates increasing political rivalry within the Gabonese government.
"What is problematic is who will succeed Omar Bongo to the presidency," he said. "He has been ruling for four decades now, and I think the divisions within show a sort of power vacuum."
While analysts say tiny Equatorial Guinea has increased its regional influence with increased oil production, Lariou says Gabon is close to depleting its oil stocks.
"It was one of the largest oil-producing countries in Central Africa until the emergence of Equatorial Guinea," he said. "For a small country of 1.4 million people it still has one of the highest GDP's per capita [in the region]. But that is likely to change as the oil disappears."
The leaders of both countries were set to meet in Geneva for U.N.-sponsored negotiations over the disputed islands, but Gabonese officials canceled those talks, citing a scheduling conflict.