Poverty amid plenty as unemployment booms

Patiently scraping the scales off fish at the Pont Nomba market in Gabon's capital, 19-year-old high-school graduate Etienne Biyoghe said he once dreamt of an office career. But as unemployment has soared in oil-rich Gabon, now he feels lucky just to have enough money to put some food on the table at the end of the day.

“I do not feel ashamed,” Biyoghe said. In a good month, the arduous work can net him US $300, well above the US $85 minimum wage - unchanged since 1970. It is set to go up to US $155 next month.

An estimated 40 percent of people are unemployed in Gabon, a tiny West African country rich in oil, gold, manganese and ore. The United Nations says that between 60 and 70 percent of the population live below the poverty line, scraping by on less than US $1 per day.

The rampant poverty is set against a per capita GDP more than three-times higher than the sub-Saharan average, a paradox that is not lost on politicians opposed to the country’s president, Omar Bongo, West Africa’s longest-serving head of state.

"The populations of the oil producing African countries are those who suffer from the most deteriorated living conditions," said parliamentarian Laurent Nzamba.

Oil production has been declining in recent years in Gabon to average about 265,000 barrels per day. Oil still accounts for an estimated 50 percent of national revenue, and analysts say forecasted continuing high oil prices should cushion the country from short-term shocks.

Still, some are sceptical that Gabon’s economic indicators will go anywhere except backward as long as the 70-year-old president is in power.

"Our leaders live in style, parading with cars and big villas while the country is left utterly helpless," said Vincent Ndomba, who works at the Treasury.

David Cowan, senior economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, agrees. “Gabon has a long history of doing all the things that shouldn’t be done,” he said.

Cowan said Gabon’s government frittered away the country’s oil wealth on grandiose projects. “Instead of spending on primary healthcare, it spent on hospitals and universities, without thinking about the long-term costs.”

Analysts have urged Gabon to start diversifying the economy to compensate for the decline in oil output, suggesting it expand mining production and improve the forestry, construction, telecommunication and fishing sectors as potential additional sources of revenue.

But Gabonese are not optimistic. At the fish market, Salomon Kontche said he would advise his children to forget about college and head straight for stable manual jobs.

"With the economic crisis, our situation is precarious,” Kontche said. “It's better to find an activity that provides us with a certain amount of autonomy.”

al/kdd/ab/nr/cs