Citizens of Gabon will go to the polls this week to choose between the long-running dynasty of Bongo Ondimba or a member of the opposition comprised of 14 candidates, each jostling to take part in this Saturdays’ polls.
But what looked like an easy win for the incumbent president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, grew speed bumps over the past week when two of the favored opposition candidates pulled out of the race in favor of Jean Ping – a strong candidate with credentials. A third candidate – first cousin of the president – also withdrew this week.
“I am here because you decided that we needed a single candidate to end this dictatorship that we’ve been living through,” said Leon-Paul Ngoulakia, the former intelligence chief, who until 2015 was a close aide of Bongo.
The 73 year old Ping served as chair of the African Union from 2008 to 2012, and was foreign minister for almost a decade. He was considered close to Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo, who ruled Gabon from 1967 until his death in 2009. Ping married the late president’s eldest daughter. He later married an Ivorian and is now a father of eight.
The electoral shuffle comes as the renowned Berklee School of Music, a Boston-based institution for contemporary musical instruction, moves forward on plans to open a modern African Music Institute in Libreville in 2017, complete with state-of-the-art recording studio, study and rehearsal spaces, an auditorium and concert hall, a museum documenting the history of West African music, and a dance studio.
Meanwhile, if elected, Gabon would be “sheltered from need and fear”, Ping said as he launched his campaign on Saturday in the central town of Lambarene.
But Ping has yet to outline a different economic plan from the existing one, which relies heavily on oil. With oil prices stuck at low numbers, Gabon is one of five Central African countries facing skyrocketing debt to manage the falling revenue picture.
The picture becomes more grim following a recent downgrade of government bonds by Moody’s Investors Service.
A new or re-elected president will also face a restive labor force, and unemployment reaching 21% of mostly youth, women and the under-educated. The World Bank in a recent report blamed a “mismatch” between the skills provided by the education system and the needs of the economy.
Further, the Bank observed, “Despite having a relatively high per capita income ($7,728 in 2015), Gabon’s poverty rate remains high. A 2013 McKinsey report suggests that about 30% of the population lives with monthly incomes below the guaranteed minimum wage of 80,000 CFAs. The social situation has deteriorated in terms of access to basic social services (e.g. health, safe drinking water, and electricity) in 60% of the regions.
Despite reports of government mismanagement at high levels, the African Music Institute should carry out its vision, affirmed Steve Mallory, publisher of Africawatch, a pan-African news magazine, if it helps African people. The Institute will focus on traditional African music and dance for 300 students, creating a path for study at Berklee’s Boston campus.