September 4, 2009 / 2:31 PM / 9 years ago

NEWSMAKER-Gabon's Bongo needs consensus despite reform plans

* Son, like father, must reach out to opponents

* Ambitions to push reformist agenda

* Likely to move away from French-dominated support

By David Lewis

DAKAR, Sept 4 (Reuters) - Anger on the street and a majority vote against him will force Gabonese president-elect Ali Ben Bongo to govern by consensus like his late father as he tries to push an ambitious agenda for political and economic change.

Ben Bongo, 50, long served in his father’s governments but he has vowed to reform the central African nation, where oil reserves are dwindling after years of output that have done little for development, and is likely to broaden the country’s investment base away from former colonial ruler France.

Opponents remain divided and violence that erupted after results were announced on Thursday has died down but analysts say Ben Bongo’s room for manoeuvre will be limited after a two rivals secured over 25 percent of the vote to his 41.7 percent.

“While he got the plurality, it is important for (Ben Bongo) to note that the opposition won more than 50 percent of the vote,” said a Western diplomat who followed the poll, which only allowed for one round of voting.

“Omar Bongo was a master of reaching out and I would expect his son to do the same. No one is talking about reconciliation now but I would expect there to be some reconciliation in the future ... It is just how Gabon works,” he added.

Of Ben Bongo’s rivals, Pierre Mamboundou is likely to be the hardest to win over after two decades in opposition and a rejection of Sunday’s vote. Andre Mba Obame only left the ruling party in July to run independently so could be brought back into the fold more easily, analysts say.

During nearly 42 years in charge, Omar Bongo used a combination of force, the backing of former colonial power France and patronage from decades of oil wealth to undermine his opponents and groom his son to take over.


Ben Bongo’s Western education and experience in government having served as both foreign and defence minister is reassuring for investors.

Richard Segal, specialised debt broker at Knight Libertas, described Ben Bongo’s victory as “relatively good news for foreign businessmen and investors”.

However, despite a successful Eurobond, dwindling oil reserves have focused the need to diversify the economy while attacks on French installations, including the consulate and oil major Total in Port Gentil, have underscored tensions.

“Acknowledging the rising anti-French feelings in the country, Ali Bongo, who has himself in the past shown pro-American, and pro-Asian biases will likely begin to diversify ... to invite a broader range of foreign investors,” said Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, Middle East and Africa analyst at Eurasia Group.

“Also because Ali Bongo is known as relatively more economically liberal than his father, who adhered to the French dirigiste model, Ali Bongo is likely to push for greater privatisation and deregulation of the economy,” he added.

While campaigning, Ben Bongo targeted the youth vote and talked about turning Gabon, which has about 2 billion barrels of oil and 1 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves — into a country of entrepreneurs.

A quick resolution to the election result will be welcomed by businesses in the tiny nation of 1.5 million, whose political class has spent much of the year speculating, initially over the health of the first lady, who died in March, followed by the death of the president.

“I think the chance of any long, drawn-out political fighting is not on the books. We will be back to business as usual before too long — the country needs to get back to work,” said a Libreville-based international businessman.

“Things haven’t been moving forward. You get the sense that things haven’t been working properly since the beginning of the year.” he added. (Editing by Richard Williams)

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