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GABON: Who will succeed Omar Bongo?

LIBREVILLE, 11 February 2005 (IRIN) - Omar Bongo and Gnassingbe Eyadema were both born in 1935. They came to power 32 years later in Gabon and Togo respectively; Bongo through constitutional succession, Eyadema by grabbing power in a coup d'etat.

The two men became firm allies of France, the former colonial power in both Gabon and Togo, and proceeded to rule their countries in an authoritarian fashion for the next 38 years.

They both made changes to the constitution to remove all limits on the length of time they could serve in power. And as they grew older, both men carved out places for their sons in government.

Eyadema died in office on 5 February and a few hours later his favoured son, Faure Gnassingbe, seized power with the backing of the army in defiance of the constitution.

What would happen in Gabon if Bongo, now 69 and apparently in good health, were suddenly to depart from the scene?

His 45-year-old son, Ali Bongo, holds the key post of Defence Minister. But as in the case of Gnassingbe in Togo, the constitution does not place Ali first in line to take over as head of state should his father die in office.

Eyadema was a former sergeant in the French colonial army, who seized power in a coup on 13 January 1967, just seven years after independence.

Bongo meanwhile found himself thrust into the role of head of state as vice-president following the unexpected death in office of Gabon's first post-independence president, Leon M'Ba.

The diminutive Gabonese leader now takes on Eyadema's mantle as Africa's longest serving head of state. And he shows no signs of planning to retire later this year at the end of his current seven-year term.


The late Togolese president, Gnassingbe Eyadema
Presidential elections are due in December 2005 and Omar Bongo has said nothing so far about throwing in the towel and handing over to a successor.

But controversy surrounding Eyadema junior's seizure of power in Togo has put the spotlight on what is likely to happen in Gabon.

Similar set-up

Many think Ali Bongo is also likely to follow in his father's footsteps.

"What happened in Togo could also happen to other presidents who were Eyadema's brothers," Le Crocodile, a fortnightly Gabonese magazine, wrote in an editorial published on Friday.

"We find the same political configurations in Gabon... It would be a miscalculation to say the same extreme events could not happen in Central Africa."

Togo's constitution stipulated that in the event of the president dying in office, power should pass to the head of the national assembly pending fresh elections within 60 days.

But the army rode roughshod over the law and installed the dead president's son, Faure Gnassingbe, as the new leader instead. As criticism poured in from around the world, parliament was hastily convened to retroactively change the constitution and clear Gnassingbe to rule until 2008.

Bongo's first comments on Eyadema's death included a reminder that the constitution was sacrosanct.

"His death is a great loss for Africa. But we must respect his memory, the laws that he left behind and the constitution," Bongo, the last surviving member of Africa's old guard, told reporters.

Under Gabon's constitution, which Bongo has modified several times, power would pass to the head of the senate if the president died in office. The new interim head of state would then be charged with organising a presidential election within 90 days although he himself would barred from standing as a candidate.

Some analysts believe there would be uproar if Ali Bongo tried to seize power to ensure the same kind of father-to-son succession which Africa witnessed last week in Togo and four years ago in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Eyadema's son Faure was sworn in as president on Monday
"In the event of a power vacuum, the Gabonese would choose their new head of state in an election open to all candidates," Samuel Ngoma, a sociologist at the University of Libreville, told IRIN. "If this provision of the constitution was undermined, the Gabonese people would descend into the streets en masse."

Before his father's death, Gnassingbe was Minister for Public Works, Mines and Telecommunications. Bongo's son, Ali, holds the far more strategic post of Defence Minister, and observers say since taking on the job in 1999 he has installed allies in key army positions and won over the troops.

Is Ali Bongo the president-in-waiting?

People were already talking about the idea of the son taking over from the father in oil-producing Gabon before Togo's succession crisis hit the headlines.

The weekly newsletter Africa Confidential recently described Ali Bongo as one of the "stronger contenders" to become president after his father. It noted that Ali was "well connected in the United States", a country that increasingly looks to Africa to offset its dependency on oil from the volatile Middle East.

Back in Gabon, the internet news service Gabon Flash has been running an online poll about whether Ali might take the top job.

"Ali will never be president of Gabon. We are not like the Togolese. With the death of Eyadema, Bongo's plan has failed. By putting his son at the defence ministry, we can see his intentions all too clearly," was the comment posted by one voter, who preferred to remain anonymous.


Ali Bongo, currently Defence Minister
"But we won't let him do it. The Gabonese constitution will be respected," he added grimly.

The overwhelming majority of respondents to the poll agreed that the Bongo family should quit power in this densely forested country of 1.2 million people once the current president disappears from the scene.

Gabon Flash said 90 percent of respondents said Ali would definitely not take over the reins of power, five percent said he would and the remainder were undecided.

But for the moment, Bongo the elder rules supreme with no threats to his authority visible on the horizon.

"All credible opposition has... been crushed or co-opted," Africa Confidential said.

Indeed of the 35 political parties registered in Gabon, all but six belong to the presidential majority. Bongo calls this alliance his "convivial democracy."

Two years ago, a parliament stacked with Bongo allies abolished the two-term limit for the head of state, allowing the president to seek re-election indefinitely.

Four decades at the helm

A member of the minority Bateke tribe from near the Congolese border, Bongo began his political career at the Foreign Ministry at independence in 1960. By 1966 he was vice-president. A year later, M'Ba's death in office landed him with the top job.

He created the Gabonese Democratic Party in 1968 and ruled the country as a one-party state for the next 22 years. But after a series of strikes and demonstrations, which resulted in French troops intervening to restore order, Bongo reluctantly embraced multi-party politics in 1990.

He won the country's multi-candidate presidential election in 1993 with 51 percent of the vote. The opposition cried foul and accused him of fraud. But Bongo was re-elected in 1998 with 67 percent of the vote.

Commentators say although Gabon is no longer officially a one party-state, the political landscape is little changed. One man dominates the political arena because the majority of the multiple parties have been brought into Bongo's fold.

Some worry about the effect this is having on the next political generation.

"The way several political parties have been absorbed in the presidential galaxy means Bongo can be president for life but it is also preventing the emergence of new leaders with strong support in the event that the head of state leaves power suddenly," one leading opposition politician, who declined to be named, told IRIN.

Ali Bongo is obviously one possible contender.

Born in Brazzaville in the neighbouring Republic of Congo, he studied law and launched into a political career in the 1980s.

After working for a time in his father's office, Ali was named Foreign Minister in 1989 at the tender age of 29. However, he was forced resign two years later when a change to the constitution established that all ministers had to be at least 35 years old.

Ali disappeared into party politics and re-emerged in the limelight in 1998 when he became a member of parliament for the PDG. A year later, aged 38, he took over the defence ministry.

Other possible contenders for the presidency include Idriss Ngari, a career army officer and former defence minister from Bongo's home region of Haut-Ogoue; and Paul Mba Abessole, the onetime firebrand opposition leader who has since jumped on the Bongo bandwagon and is now Transport Minister.

But the current ringmaster of the country brushes off questions about who will inherit his legacy.

In a recent interview with Radio France Internationale, Bongo senior quipped: "I won't be the one who has to find my successor."

Theme (s): Early Warning, Governance,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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