June 8, 2009 / 5:55 PM / 11 years ago

INSTANT VIEW: Death of Gabon's President Bongo

(Reuters) - Below is comment on the death of Gabon’s President Omar Bongo, Africa’s longest serving ruler, in a Spanish clinic on Monday:


“Bongo’s unexpected departure from office leaves a potentially dangerous power vacuum. Given his highly personalized style of rule, the as-yet unresolved succession question could lead to elite infighting and a political crisis. Increased strategic maneuvering in the close circle around Bongo has been apparent for several months.

“The question is whether the players have interests in sticking to the constitution. It will all depend on how the power play plays out within the clan.

“Given that Bongo has successfully balanced and minimized potential ethnic and regional tensions, large-scale unrest or violence is unlikely. However, the unresolved succession issue creates some uncertainty given that unconstitutional, or even nominally democratic, family succession has led to significant turmoil in other sub-regional countries, such as Togo.

“There does not appear to be an immediate risk of unrest for the moment. Because of years of Bongo co-opting opposition candidates, there is no genuine opposition left that would make people come out onto the streets in protest. But if they go to elections and the family clan is busy fighting each other, a more genuine opposition could emerge.”


“Even though there is no clear successor to Bongo, there are two leading candidates. One is Ali Ben Bongo Ondimba, Bongo’s 50-year-old son and defense minister of Gabon. The second candidate is Vice President Didjob Divungi Di Ndinge. Ndinge has chaired cabinet meetings in Libreville during Bongo’s absence, though he has not assumed an official capacity as acting president. Officials from the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) are likely negotiating who will succeed Bongo, and in the short-term this transition is likely to be smooth, with factions within the PDG working to safeguard their positions.

“In the mid- to long-term, the PDG could fray, causing national unrest, with no historic central figure able to impose authority amid competing factions.

“Though relations with France under (President Nicolas) Sarkozy are not as extensive as they were during France’s Gaullist era, the Gabonese government post-Bongo will still rely on French military and economic know-how.”


“We have lost a great and faithful friend of France, a great figure of Africa and a head of state who won the esteem and respect of all his peers, notably through his numerous initiatives in favor of peace on the African continent.”


“The test for Gabon now will be whether the institutions have the capacity to accommodate the departure of the man who so dominated the system for such a long period of time.

“In the Republic of Guinea, the constitution lasted about 20 minutes after the death of the president. In Togo, it didn’t take very long to establish that the president’s son was the best person to take over.

“I think the real issue is whether, even if there is a stable transition, anyone can make a system work that has been so bound up with one individual.

“The strength of his personality was part of the stability which came with accumulated years of office.

“Someone who came to power in 1967 and someone coming to power in 2009 face altogether different challenges. It will be hard to run Gabon as it has been run.”


“President Omar Bongo’s greatest legacy is the political stability he was able to achieve and maintain throughout his time in office. Unlike neighboring Congo-Brazzaville and fellow Franc Zone country, Cote d’Ivoire where the elite’s resistance to democracy ultimately provoked civil war, President Bongo met the challenge and later artfully co-opted his opponents into high government office.

“However, his government was rooted in extravagance and corruption and therefore represents a wasted opportunity. Gabon’s small population and early oil wealth meant that it had per capita incomes as high as some small developed economies (Portugal) but sadly this did not translate into domestic health education or social welfare programs — rather to a collection of properties in France and the high lifestyles of the elite that surrounded President Bongo.”


“Investors are not expecting any leadership change to make a difference to the debt default risks of the country nor to impact the economy. By and large, investors expect debt servicing to continue. Had his illness been more drawn out, a power struggle could have broken out. A swift succession will remove uncertainty among investors.”


“According to the constitution, it should be the head of the senate who steps in but she had been effectively sidelined when Bongo handed over his powers.

“Bongo was said for a long time to have been grooming his son, Ali Ben Bongo, the defense minister. There is his daughter, Pascaline, who was his trusted his advisor for a number of years and there was also talk of her husband.”

“Thirty days of mourning will give them time to work out what will happen and whether there will be some sort of election process, presumably to favor Ali Ben Bongo.

“(President) Bongo has been credited with maintaining some modicum of stability even though there are the different ethnic groups... This has been done through patronage and the use of oil money to co-opt opponents and so on.”

“The president’s son heads up the defense ministry. Thus far, the military and various factions in Gabon have been kept quite quiet.

“A coup does not look particularly likely.”

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