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Gabon Faces Challenge to Reform

The West African coastal state of Gabon has had only one president for nearly 40 years. Omar Bongo Ondimba, Africa's longest serving head of state, has presided during decades of oil-based prosperity that may not be sustainable.

The shops in the capital of the Gabonese Republic, Libreville, are filled with expensive goods from Europe and Asia. Government ministry buildings are plush and built on a grand scale. The administration of Gabon's President, El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba is stable, with key posts filled with his family members. Per capita income last year was estimated at $6,800, in large part because the country's population is only some 1.4 million people. On the surface, Gabon appears to be a success story. But beneath that veneer are problems with fair governance and the country's economic future.

The Bongo Strategy

Omar Bongo was elevated from the post of vice-president in 1967 when Gabon's first President, Leon M'Ba died suddenly. Former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria Princeton Lyman, who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, says that along with the presidency, Mr. Bongo inherited M'Ba's taste for autocratic rule.

"He's part of an earlier generation of African leaders who are virtually 'presidents for life.' You've got a very, very dominant government [political] party, and an opposition that haven't really got their feet on the ground and been able to operate very effectively. So all the decisions are really made by the president. There isn't a lively [i.e., independent] parliament," says Lyman.

The existence of a political opposition in Gabon is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1968, Omar Bongo declared Gabon to be a one-party state, controlled by his Gabonese Democratic Party, the P.D.G. In the early 1990s, President Bongo reverted back to a multi-party political system.

But Mark Rosenberg at the Freedom House human rights monitoring group in New York says the resumption of multiple parties in Gabon was actually a cynical ploy by Omar Bongo to maintain control of the state. "There's certainly an element of 'divide and conquer' here. You have 35 registered political parties in Gabon. 29 of them belong to an alliance with Bongo's P.D.G. The P.D.G. has been in power since independence [from France in 1960]. That's an overwhelming political dominance,” says Rosenberg. “Even if these parties in the alliance decide to buck [i.e., oppose] Bongo or his party, they wouldn't have much space to do so."

This can be seen in the country's last three presidential elections, in which Mr. Bongo's vote totals have gone from 51 percent in 1993 to 72 percent last year. Meanwhile, the P.D.G. - controlled parliament has abolished presidential term limits, removing an obstacle for Mr. Bongo's continued rule.

Within the government, Omar Bongo has prevented challenges to his rule by putting his family members or others very close to him in key positions such as Minister of Defense. That post is held by his son, Ali, who many analysts expect to claim the presidency when his father dies or leaves office, despite a constitution that does not place him directly in the line of succession.

Social Truce

Jennifer Cooke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says along with avoiding strife within the government, Gabon has largely been spared the inter-ethnic and class-related problems that affect other African states. "Bongo himself is from a minority group, which may take away some of that [inter-ethnic] friction. Another point is that given the wealth of the country and the fairly high per capita income, everybody is doing well enough that it doesn't really come down to the hard core divisions [i.e., between 'haves' and 'have-nots.']," says Cooke.

Gabon's high level of government spending during Mr. Bongo's rule has been maintained even during times like the 1990s, when oil prices plunged, by borrowing massive amounts of money from international lenders. As a result, the country's public debt level is now nearly 30 percent of its gross domestic product.

Gabon's Economy After Oil

Gabon has enjoyed oil-based prosperity since the late 1960s. But Keith Myers, with the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, says that economic underpinning won't last forever. "Gabon's 'Achilles heel' is that oil production peaked a few years ago and is [now] on a steadily declining track. And so has G.D.P. As a result, poverty is starting to get worse, and the government badly needs to implement a diversification policy to wean itself away from oil dependence," says Myers.

Gabon's oil production last year was about 268,000 barrels per day, down by a third from its peak in the mid-1990s. Many industry experts say its reserves could be depleted in less than a decade.

C.S.I.S. analyst Jennifer Cooke says that, so far, Gabon's president and his government have not adequately prepared for a future without oil. "Bongo is not looking toward 2015, when the country is going to really have to deal with declining oil revenue,” says Cooke. “Yes, tourism is one thing [i.e., a way to replace oil revenues]. The logging industry and the timber industry - - there's likely to be a great deal more demand there down the line. And Gabon is rich in precious timbers. But there hasn't really to date been the investment in other sectors that are going to diversify the economy and carry the country through [this transition from an oil-based economy]."

Omar Bongo Ondimba is more than 70 years old and many observers predict that he may not live to the end of his current term in 2012. But so long as he remains in power, they say that the status quo in Gabon will continue and that solving the country's problems may be a task faced by his successor.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.