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Rehab in Riyadh? Gabonese president Ali Bongo missing since 'stroke' on Saudi trip

Opposition activists demand answers about whereabouts and health of president who is reported to have been in hospital for the past month
Bongo (L) was pictured with King Salman on 24 October, the day he is reported to have fallen ill (SPA)

Concerns and frustration are growing in the small central African state of Gabon over the continuing absence of President Ali Bongo Ondimba after he fell ill during a conference in Saudi Arabia last month.

Bongo reportedly suffered a stroke on 24 October, during the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, an event subject to intense scrutiny following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Bongo had been scheduled to speak alongside other African leaders but didn’t appear for his presentation. He was reportedly transferred to King Faisal Hospital in Riyadh and hasn’t been seen since.

Photos published by the Saudi foreign ministry on 24 October showed a smiling Bongo meeting King Salman.

The confusion and lack of transparency over Bongo’s ill-health has left Gabon, a country of 1.9 million people, in the midst of a political vacuum with opposition parties and activists concerned that the Bongo family and associates were quickly closing ranks and taking control of the country.

Marc Ona Essangui, an advocate for democracy in Gabon, based in the country’s capital, Libreville, told Middle East Eye that ordinary people were growing increasingly frustrated with the way government have withheld information about the president’s health and precise whereabouts.

“We are not receiving the necessary information from our own government,” said Essangui, who is also coordinator for Tournons la Page, an international campaign promoting democracy in Africa.

French publication Jeune Afrique reported earlier this week that it was likely Bongo would be transferred to London for further treatment, a claim that has not been confirmed by Gabon’s government.

The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to requests from MEE for further information or comment.

“It is this blurred communication that is causing confusion among the Gabonese public,” said Laurence Ndong, a Gabonese political activist based in Paris.

Ndong told MEE that this was especially irresponsible considering that the country's first two presidents died abroad. Former presidents Leon M’ba died in Paris in 1967 and Omar Bongo Ondimba, Ali Bongo’s father, died in 2009 in Barcelona.

“Their deaths were hidden from the population and they delayed the news so they could settle the issue of their estate,” Ndong said.

“Ali Bongo’s situation might be a lot more serious than what his spokesperson has said, and he might actually be dead. If he is not, they need to give the Gabonese people a sense of his state.”

‘Republican dynasty’

The Bongo family has ruled Gabon since 1967. Ali Bongo has been president since succeeding his father Omar in 2009 in a government Martin Rupiya, executive director of The African Public Policy and Research Institute (APPRI), based in Johannesburg, describes as a “republican dynasty”.

The family and its associates dominate the economy and occupies various portfolios in government. For instance, Ali’s half-brother Frederic heads the Republican Guard intelligence service. They also control institutions and have shaped the country’s foreign relations.

Even the biggest opposition leader, Jean Ping, through a relationship with Pascaline Bongo Ondimba, Ali Bongo’s sister, could be considered part of the larger Bongo enterprise, analysts say.

Jean Ping claimed victory in 2016's disputed presidential elections (AFP)

In recent days, Ping has spoken of taking what he says is his rightful place as the president of the country following the post-2016 election crisis which he claimed to have won.

“Even if Ping were allowed to [take over] one would not see any substantive change because not only was he once a minister of communication and foreign affairs, his relationship with Pascaline makes him almost a son-in-law to this dynasty. He is part of the old regime,” Rupiya said.

“The country might require an interim management of the country... for real democracy to emerge in Gabon, it needs civil society to emerge, it needs time. And to switch from Bongo to Jean Ping in my view will not substantially change the status quo.”

Mired in poverty

Gabon is the fifth-largest oil producer on the African continent and is described by the World Bank as an upper-middle-income country. However, one third of the country remains poor, with unemployment sitting at 20 percent and youth unemployment hovering around 35 percent.

In 2016, Gabon was ranked at 109 out of 188 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index.

“The oil revenues of Gabon are famously appropriated by a couple of hundred families, first among them, the Bongo family,” said Douglas Yates, a lecturer in African politics at the American Graduate School in Paris. “The oil money has been stolen.”

Mays Mouissi, a Gabonese economist based in Paris, agrees: “Only those who are associated with the Bongo family have comfortable lives.”

Since his disappearance from public view, the family and its close associates have moved to change the constitution in what analysts describe as an attempt to interfere with due process.

Under the conditions stipulated in the constitution, any one of the three arms of government - namely, the executive, legislature or the judiciary - could approach the Constitutional Court to confirm that a presidential vacancy exists.

It follows that the speaker of the parliament would be appointed with elections to be held within 45 days.

“No one wanted to make that call, because they are afraid of repercussions should Bongo return,” Rupiya said.

An offshore rig looms over Port-Gentil. Oil is Gabon's main export (AFP)

Instead, Marie Madeleine Mborantsuo, president of the Constitutional Court and a close ally of the Bongo family, managed to add a paragraph into the constitution on 15 November, effectively giving Pierre Claver Maganga Moussavou, the country’s vice-president, the go-ahead to take over the reins of government until Bongo’s return.

“The change in the constitution was in clear violation of the existing framework which provides for such a situation. What has happened instead is that his brother Frederic Bongo is now running the government from behind the scenes.”

Last weekend, the African Union issued a statement in which expressed alarm and said it was “concerned by certain developments related to the health situation of the head of state”.

It also said it would be sending a fact-finding mission to the country. On Friday, opposition parties are scheduled to march in the city and call for the resignation of Mborantsuo.

Gabon-Saudi relations

Gabon was among the original members of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and remained in the cartel between 1975 and 1995. In 2016, Ali Bongo’s administration rejoined the group.

According to analysts, Bongo has used the country’s membership to OPEC and his Muslim identity as a means to nurture stronger relations with the Saudi government.

In the early days of the Gulf dispute in 2017, Gabon openly sided with Saudi Arabia in its dispute with Qatar.

Yates, from the American Graduate School in Paris, said Bongo has also used improved ties with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to get closer to US President Donald Trump.

Gabon enjoyed good relations with former US President Barack Obama and was seen as an asset to US foreign policy on the continent.

Gabon was also the first African country to call for Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to step down in 2011.

Yates said Bongo had a lot in common with the crown prince because both men shared a dynastic style of leadership. 

“I think Bongo feels very comfortable with the Gulf. And when you consider that when he had his stroke, he was in Saudi Arabia, he couldn’t have been luckier. He got top treatment, he got his secrecy. Saudi Arabia offers him everything that he wants.”