Why you should care
Because sometimes dictatorships are hard to predict.
This week, one of Africa’s wealthiest countries goes to the polls — and may well set itself up for another dictatorship. The outcome will depend, in part, on a surprisingly intimate question: Can President Ali Bongo Ondimba buck his father’s power-hungry ways?
Well-fed, well-padded and wealthy, Gabon’s president is in many ways a man defined by generation gaps. The 57-year-old, who has been at the helm of his 1.6-million-strong nation since 2009, is the son of longtime leader Omar Bongo Ondimba. While relying on his dad’s network of patronage politics — Bongo the Elder held office from 1967 to his death in 2009 — le fils is trying to set a new beat for a country reeling from Omar’s lucrative, corruption-plagued and oil-fueled tenure.
Bongo the Younger loves music and is reputedly a good drummer and piano player. He’s been known to rap on stage, charm Western leaders and, most recently, pose for selfies with Gabon’s jeunesse, tweeting messages like “We are together!” and “#ChangeonsEnsemble” in a bid to drum up support. But many in this central West African nation — slightly smaller than Colorado— are fed up with Bongo’s now-familiar tune. While Gabon’s GDP grew 1.6 percent last year, ringing up to $8,311.48 per capita, according to the World Bank — the fourth highest rate in Africa — unemployment remains at a whopping 20 percent. This means there are a lot of have-nots, especially among the younger generation, who say Bongo has done too little too slowly … and that he may stick around too long, like dear old pop. Leur problème? Ali will likely be reelected this week to a second seven-year term.
Soft-spoken but stout, Bongo — who couldn’t be reached for comment — is the product of a luxurious international lifestyle that saw him shipped off to France at a young age to attend private school just outside Paris. He later graduated from the Sorbonne with a Ph.D. in law. Ali and his wife, the svelte, fashionable Parisian Sylvia Bongo Ondimba, have four children and are known for spending a great deal of time with their jet-setting friends far from Gabon. “Their private life is more in England than it is in France,” says Antoine Glaser, former managing editor of Africa Intelligence.
All it would take is the police or army losing control and firing into a crowd to spark a movement of violence like we’ve seen elsewhere in the region.
At age 14, Bongo converted to Islam alongside his father. Yet while Ali is often painted with the same brush as Omar, “he is really the contrary of his father,” Glaser says, noting that Ali pushed against Omar’s politics and fought his father’s allies: “He was never at all in the heart of the power.” Touting reforms and free-market ideals, Bongo denies he’s a lifer like dad. To prove it, he has pushed back legally against those who label him “dictator” and even promised to leave his father’s inheritance to Gabonese youth (secession proceedings over Omar’s estate remain tied up in international courts). Since his controversial 2009 election — opponents alleged Bongo was born in Nigeria and thus ineligible to run; others have suggested the election was rigged; he’s publicly denied both — Bongo has managed to foster greater economic freedom and bring significant infrastructural spending to Gabon.
But while veering away from his father’s political ways, he’s still known as “Bongo fils,” the son, says Kevin Amirehsani, senior analyst with Global Risk Insights. Yet Ali’s not cut from exactly the same cloth, says Glaser. While Omar met weakness with cash and political positions, quieting critics with bribes and elevated standing, “Ali is a man of security” who prefers to use a stick, not his father’s carrots. Civil society opponents have even landed in jail as a result.
A fractured opposition fielding 14 presidential candidates surprisingly coalesced in recent days, with the main coalition parties now backing former foreign minister Jean Ping. But many still expect Bongo to win on August 27, netting a second seven-year term in a country with no term limits, thanks to his control over state resources and the media, as well as his development track record, Amirehsani says. Glaser, who wouldn’t put it past Bongo to pull strings for a win if need be, says Ping’s new support, which saw two of the country’s three biggest opposition figures — Guy Nzouba-Ndama and Casimir Oyé-Mba — rally behind Ping, could spell trouble for the president. Dr. J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, disagrees. “[Bongo] will be reelected,” he says, noting the president’s accomplishments, the “risible nature of the opposition” and the Gabonese first-past-the-post system, “in which the winner only needs to come in first in the pack.”
Bongo’s weakest link? Disillusioned youths. Many millennials are fed up with disparity. Gabon has “one of the highest GDPs on the continent, but that’s not spreading downward,” Amirehsani says. Neither he nor Glaser believes Gabon will descend into massive unrest like Congo-Brazzaville, where Denis Sassou Nguesso’s extension of his 32-year rule has resulted in mass protests and deaths. But Glaser does see things moving in that direction for Gabon eventually. While Bongo, who was minister of defense for 10 years, may be known as a man of security, “he can’t really control everything,” Glaser says. All it would take is the police or army losing control and firing into a crowd to spark a movement of violence like we’ve seen elsewhere in the region, he explains. Pham is also concerned. While he’s certain Bongo will win, he’s less sure of how the opposition will respond to losing. “Gabon is a small country, and it doesn’t take that many people to cause problems,” he warns.
Despite Bongo’s expected win, Amirehsani doesn’t believe Bongo will hold the reins indefinitely. Glaser says the length of Bongo’s tenure will likely depend upon how long oil coffers remain fluid and on the ferocity of Gabonese youth. Many western leaders are happy for Bongo to stay, because they want regional stability, Amirehsani explains. Bongo can be relied upon to uphold oil and development aid contracts; he’s proven useful in negotiations with other African leaders, not to mention a crucial UN Security Council vote in which Gabon supported intervention in Libya to remove Muammar Gaddafi.
The message to Gabonese youths? “If they want to make revolution, they’ll have to wait,” says Glaser, adding that it’s just a matter of time.