There is currently a political crisis in Gabon. At the heart of the conflict is the problem of whether the impaired President, Ali Bongo Ondimba, is fit for office since suffering a stroke in October 2018. The opposition has put up a fierce battle saying Ali Bongo’s ill-health warrants his removal from office.
While the Constitutional Court has refused to affirm the President’s incapacitation, Ali Bongo’s most significant response so far to the opposition’s demands came on December 5, 2019, when he appointed his eldest son, Nourredine Bongo Valentin, to the newly created position of “Coordinator of Presidential Affairs”. This came after a “crackdown” on corruption in which the ambitious Franco-Gabonese Brice Laccruche Alihanga, formerly Bongo’s Chief of Cabinet was dismissed and arrested.
Togo and Gabon, both former colonies of France, are two African countries where presidential power has been effectively transferred from father-to-son. Nourredine’s appointment looms as another father-to-son transfer of power in Gabon, a trend which is increasingly harmful to democracy and progress in Gabon and elsewhere in Africa.
The rise of a presidential monarchy aiming to retain power at all cost
Omar Bongo Ondimba ruled Gabon from 1967 until his death in 2009, a total of 42 years. He was the second President of Gabon. He took over when the pioneer President of Gabon, Gabriel Leon M’ba, died in power. He had been Leon M’ba’s Cabinet Director and then Vice President. His original first name was Albert-Bernard which he changed to Omar upon converting himself and some family members to Islam in 1973.
By the time of his death, Omar Bongo had put in place one of the most effective dictatorial regimes in Africa. There was no distinction between institutions in Gabon and the close ties, including his numerous women, he placed in these institutions. His political party, the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), which he created in 1968 to replace M’ba’s Gabonese Democratic Bloc (BDG), controlled all political life in Gabon.
When he died, his son, Ali Bongo, rumoured to be an adopted Biafran refugee, who he had been grooming within Gabon’s ruling circles was quickly inducted as chairman of the PDG. Ali was seen as supported by France that had enjoyed priority of choice in the exploitation of natural resources in Gabon and that supported Omar Bongo’s rule, running military operations in Gabon. Ali Bongo won elections in 2009 and 2016.
The 2009 and 2016 polls were all marred by unprecedented violence since the re-adoption of multi-party politics and elections in 1990. Despite opposition from some family members, PDG barons in control of the State found in Ali Bongo the champion to protect their perks. Ali was also seen as enjoying the cover of France. These issues contributed to violence in the 2009 polls as the opposition decried a rigged process.
During his first term in office, Ali Bongo parted with some of his father’s close allies. He imposed the transformation of wood in Gabon and charged France’s oil giant, Total, a fine of $805 million. He embarked on ambitious infrastructural projects and introduced a “Grain Project” which he said was aimed at food security and sufficiency. Then he took a huge chunk of his father’s fortune and placed in the Gabonese treasury.
However, these public relations stunts changed little. The 2016 elections were highly contested. In a context of tense relations with France, the rise of new enemies in the shape of disgruntled ex-PDG members, the polls were marred by even worse violence. Ali secured a slim victory, 49.85% as against 48.23% for Jean Ping. A partial recount increased his margin of victory but the opposition refused to recognize his triumph.
After the 2016 crisis, the consensus was that having sailed through a first term and two violently contested elections, Ali was set to trail his father and rule for life. However, Ali suffered a stroke in October 2018, while on an official State visit in Riyad, Saudi Arabia. First hospitalized in Riyad, Ali Bongo was flown to a clinic in Rabat, Morocco.
Ali went unseen for weeks. His prolonged stay in Morocco led the opposition to ask the Constitutional Court to affirm his permanent impairment in accordance with the Article 13 of the Constitution. But the Court led for over 28 years now by Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo who has two children by Omar Bongo instead transferred some of the President’s powers to the Vice President and the Prime Minister.
Then one week after Ali’s New Year’s speech, pre-recorded in Rabat, a failed coup took place following which Ali returned to Gabon in mid-January. Thereafter, the President made very few public appearances. On one such rare occasion in August 2019 during National Day celebrations he was visibly impaired, suffering from strabismus, leading the opposition and civil society to press for medical expertise on his cognitive abilities.
A trustworthy confidant and ally
Ali Bongo’s desire to retain power despite ill-health and to have someone rule by proxy in his stead is not a first in Gabon. Omar Bongo was the de facto President of Gabon for close to a year while Leon M’ba was ill. But times have changed. There is more political maturity now and the opposition is poised to continue pressurizing the regime to prove the President’s non-incapacitation.
Therefore, to stay in power, Ali Bongo needs a strategy, one that could durably stifle any calls for the affirmation of his incapacitation and at the same time help him retain control. To achieve this aim, Ali Bongo needs a trustworthy confidant. Appointing his son, Nourredine Bongo Valentin, as “Coordinator of Presidential” offers a solution.
The Constitutional Court’s inaction, delegating authority to the Vice President or Prime Minister for prolonged periods and dismissing judges who are called upon to rule on a compulsory medical examination for the President are not sustainable strategies. The powers of the Vice President and Prime Minister are governed by the Constitution. These officials cannot be seen to be exercising Presidential powers, especially for long periods as this would mean the President is no longer able to govern.
The idea of a coordinator offers the flexibility of maneuver. The role of such an actor is not bound by the type of rules attached to more statutory positions like the Vice President or Prime Minister and one cannot forbid the president to appoint one either. The constitution of Gabon gives the President all the powers to appoint to civil and military positions as well as to organize public administration as he sees fit.
Google dictionary defines the term “coordinator” as a person whose job is to organize events or activities and to negotiate with others in order to ensure they work together effectively”. These are the duties of the President of Gabon since s/he is in practice the actual Head of both the Executive and of the Government of Gabon.
As such, “in charge of all affairs of the State”, Nourredine Bongo is Gabon’s de facto ruler, albeit at the behest of his father. As a son to his father, he is poised to be a more faithful ally as compared to Ali Bongo’s half-brother Frederick Bongo or the now-jailed over-ambitious Brice Laccruche Alihanga or any other regime crony for that matter. Frederick Bongo was seen to be eying the Presidential seat. He was removed from his position as Head of Special Services and sent to the Gabonese Embassy in South Africa.
With his new coordinator of all State affairs running State business on his behalf, Ali Bongo is set to stay in power till the next elections in 2023 unperturbed and with the State machinery at his service will surely win the presidential polls if he runs. At the same time, Nourredine who is now occupying the front seat in Gabon’s power circles has the opportunity to forge alliances that could help him replace his daddy.
Democracy was invented exactly to prevent what is happening in Gabon. Gabon showcases how African regimes are undermining democracy and progress in Africa. There is a deep-seated problem in Africa of portraying despotic rule as democratic. With so many resources going to maintaining a single-family in power in Gabon, the country will not progress and is instead seating on a social conflagration time bomb.
The capture of State institutions by the Bongo dynasty, now in power for a whopping 52 years, means without external pressure for deep democratic reforms in Gabon, only democracy protests may bring real alternation in power in Gabon. However, this is contingent on a strong civil society able to unite and strategize.
To demonstrate its commitment to (re)democratization in Africa the international community must delegitimize father-to-son transition of power in Africa.