Despite Gabon’s vast oil wealth, a third of its citizens live on $1.25 a day or less. In fact, the country is best known for having had one of the longest serving leaders in modern times outside of a monarch.
And now, like a number of other African countries, Gabon is dabbling in controversial constitutional reforms. Recent constitutional changes have marked a consolidation of what the opposition has called a “power grab”. The changes remove presidential term limits, effectively allowing President Ali Bongo Ondimba to rule for life. He has also been empowered to make policy decisions without the input of political stakeholders.
The highly controversial constitutional amendments had minimal public input and were designed to consolidate the power of the executive. This will allow the president to rule without consultation, a kind of untamed presidency. The opposition has pointed to changes that undermine democracy and good governance. This is especially the case because some of these changes require Gabon’s defence and security heads to take an oath of allegiance to the president.
While some compromises have been reached between the government and the opposition, for instance the agreement to reinstate the electoral run-off system that had been replaced with a single round of voting, the overriding impact of the amendments will be to concentrate power in the presidency. This will constrain institutional oversight and consultative governance. It will also limit the role of the opposition in holding the government to account.
The net effect of these changes is to give the president the powers of an absolute monarch. How will Gabon cope with a constitutional autocracy? And what impact will an unconstrained presidency have on the tiny West African nation?
I believe that, in the short run, the changes Ali Bongo has pushed through may stifle opposing voices. But in the long run it is likely to galvanise them to mobilise for his ouster.
Ali Bongo’s uncertain future
In the 1990s popular pressure across Africa paved the way for political and constitutional reforms in Gabon. Its second president, Omar Bongo Ondimba allowed multiparty politics for the first time and the country held its first multiparty elections. His Gabonese Democratic Party went on to win against a weak and divided opposition.
Bongo senior was elected in 1967, ruling for 42 years until his death in 2009. He was a master of politics, creating a pervasive patronage system that was financed by the country’s vast oil reserves. It is Africa’s fifth largest producer.
He co-opted and rewarded a burgeoning political elite which allowed him to stave off coups and civil strife for most of his reign.
His son, Ali Bongo Ondimba was elected in 2009, just four months after the death of his father. He has maintained his father’s stranglehold on the country’s opposition and the country’s democratic development.
However, despite a dominant party system and its legacy of authoritarianism, Bongo junior might not be able to stick to power for as long as his father. The winds of political change are once again blowing through the continent and Gabon’s opposition, led by former Bongo senior ally Jean Ping, is growing in strength.
Ping claims to have won the most recent elections but says that he was cheated of victory by the incumbent.
With 48.23% of the vote in the last elections, against the incumbent’s 49.8%, the opposition registered a relatively good performance. The 6000 votes that separated them don’t bode well for Ali Bongo. He may be in power now but it might not be for long.
In addition, Gabon’s oil revenues are dwindling. This is bad news for a country that is resource dependent. With less petro dollar flowing in the economy, Ali Bongo’s expensive patronage system will suffer and he may start to lose support.
Gambia’s current constitutional changes mirror trends in some African countries where incumbents have tinkered with their constitutions to weaken oversight systems and systematically erode democratic principles.
Some of them, like Burundi, have removed presidential term limits, and others like Uganda, presidential age limits.
In Gabon, the latest constitutional changes will limit the opposition’s ability to hold the executive to account. They will also undermine the previous consultative framework that would have given the opposition some leverage to play a part in governance.
But I believe there’s a silver lining to the dark cloud over Africa’s politics. African autocrats are slowly being eased out. Incumbents might tinker with the rules of the game, and shift goal posts but they cannot escape the inevitable: Change will come. It’s only a matter of when and how.
Just look at Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Angola’s José Eduardo Dos Santos, Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh, and Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré. The pressure is also rising on the presidents of Togo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cameroon.