Sven Torfinn / Panos

Gabon has often been described as ‘the African Emirates’. This oil-rich state produces about 290,000 barrels of oil a day and boasts sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest reserves – around 2.5 billion barrels. Average per-capita income is 10 times higher than the average for the continent and some of its people have got used to a more cosseted lifestyle. An African success story, you might think. Well, appearances can be deceptive. A clearer case that you cannot judge a country by its per-capita gross national income (the standard measure of the World Bank) could hardly be made. The money that has poured into the country over the past four decades has largely been wasted. Half the country still lives below the poverty line. There is no main road linking the capital Libreville with the other cities of the country. To travel overland between them, drivers have to negotiate bumpy rural roads. There is mass unemployment and underemployment. Gabon also suffers the disastrous effects of poor governance: there is a marked absence of a clear and consistent development policy and a significant breakdown in constitutional democracy. The situation is aggravated by disregard for public property, corruption, and by wasteful expenditure on festive, politicking events aimed at buying popularity. Presiding over this mess for the last 38 years has been President Omar Bongo Ondimba, Africa’s longest-serving leader. At the age of 70 he was sworn in on 19 January 2006 for another seven-year term, following his crushing victory in presidential elections last year. Opposition parties accused President Bongo Ondimba’s Parti Démocratique Gabonais of stealing the parliamentary elections. One opposition party claimed that the Government was ‘incapable of transforming its corrupt style of managing the state’. The Government certainly still appears to be showing some signs of nervousness about its domestic opponents. The veteran opposition leader Pierre Mamboundou of the Union du Peuple Gabonais (UPG) was forced to seek asylum on 21 March in the South African embassy in Libreville, following a police raid on his party headquarters and allegations that firearms had been found. UPG officials denied they had kept any arms there and said this was a smear aimed at sabotaging the party, which has undoubtedly been one of the only real sources of political opposition to the President. Mamboundou remained inside the embassy for a month and only returned to his office after a personal meeting with the President and the Prime Minister on 19 April. By then President Bongo Ondimba had lost one of his staunchest allies, after the death of Georges Rawiri, the Senate president. Rawiri, one of Gabon’s richest people, was a key operator in managing the President’s political networks. Married to a French woman, he was also a strong proponent of French influence – Gabon continues to reflect its colonial heritage through its strong economic, linguistic and cultural ties with France. Relations with the United States are improving too as the superpower seeks increasingly to project its military and political power into the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea. IMF staff visited Libreville in late February and early March, and said in a brief report after their visit that the last quarter of 2005 was marked by ‘large budgetary slippages’. The IMF said it was urgent to re-establish fiscal discipline, despite the high oil prices which have provided a significant cushion for the Government. Prime Minister Jean Eyéghé Ndong said in March that the Government continued to aim for a three-year IMF programme – though at a time when countries in Latin America are paying back their loans rather than submit to IMF dictates, you might well wonder why the oil-rich nation is so keen to sign on this particular dotted line.

Map of Gabon