Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba won the general election in 2009 and after three years in office has quickly established himself as a young and pragmatic leader. He has set his sights on Gabon achieving Emerging Nation status by 2025, and seems determined to protect Gabon’s rich natural environment while also accelerating economic growth. He speaks exclusively to Dounia Ben Mohamed about his vision.
African Business: After your election, you pledged to turn Gabon an Emerging Nation by 2025. Are you still on course?
President Ali Bongo Ondimba: The appeal I made was to the Gabonese people, my fellow countrymen. I appealed to each of them in their own capacities and roles to work with the government and the various departments of the administration to achieve our national goals.
As I said during my speech to the senior members of the administration on 2nd May 2012, I was very keen to meet the civil servants that are at the heart of the system that manages public life.
The administration plays the leading role in carrying out our plan, which is to make Gabon an emerging country by 2025. During the process of planning and decision-making, I can seek various opinions and surround myself with people who have different skill sets according to my vision and objectives, but it is up to the government and the administration to implement them. That is why, since I came to power, I have been keen to renew and, above all, modernise this relationship, so that it becomes more effective and relevant.
As I said to them, from now on there needs to be a clear distinction between the tasks that dictate the administrative structure. The political powers will take care of developing public policies and monitoring their implementation; and the administration will take care of their execution in partnership with the private sector and non-governmental bodies.
Q: You recently put in place a new government team. What direction have you set for the new ministers?
A: Each period in politics has its own requirements and its own team. The previous team, some of whom have been retained, did what was required for a period of 30 months.
The new team has also undergone considerable changes. It has been reduced in size and we now prize their skills and their ability to represent the country. In that sense, it is a government with a mission.
So it is up to us to look for consistency and to rely on the complementarities that exist between ministerial departments. Today, for example, I brought the Ministries of Education, Sport and Culture together under the same roof in order to free up their complementary skills.
Also underlying these changes is a desire to mutualise our resources.
So the state mainly focuses on sovereign functions such as establishing strong institutions, the consolidation of the rule of law, the definition and steering of strategy, the security of people and property and ensuring the availability of basic social services.
Q: You presented yourself as the President who would break with the past. There has been a thorough clean-up of ministries, including state institutions. The major theme seems to be a better control of expenditure. What is the message you are trying to deliver?
A: The President who would break with the past? Those are your words! As far as I’m concerned, I have clearly stated my vision and my goals for the country.
I have decided on a number of measures to strengthen good governance, promote the general interest and improve the efficiency of the administration by changing mentalities and attitudes.
More than a message, it is an ongoing, permanent programme and I am not prepared to back down whatever difficulties and resistance I might encounter.
Those who have not grasped the fact that change is the way forward do so at their own peril.
Concerning the National Agency for Public Works (ANGT), its role is well understood by its users. In just a short time it has already proven its worth and continues to do so. It fulfils a need, an obligation in terms of building the country. It is a platform for coordinating infrastructure projects.
While we’re on the subject, the creation of these new public services, especially the public agencies, is all part of the reorganisation of the administration whose structure is based on the principle of specialised tasks.
The central administration provides guidance, concepts and control. The public services, each within their own area, are responsible for the execution and implementation of public policies, but also for providing advice when necessary according to agreed targets and performance.
We have a huge amount of work to do in order to sustainably reap the full benefits of our oil, minerals, agricultural, fishing, fish farming and forestry resources.
We are in the process of making profound changes to the education system in order to strengthen our most precious asset, which is our people.
That is only possible with a new system of public governance, because our old way of managing public affairs has, until now, produced only mixed results, in spite of the enormous resources and potential of our country.
Q: It appears that one of your policies has been to open up Gabon to new economic partners. How successful is the special economic zone at Nkok, your public-private partnership with the Asian group Olam?
A: We are aware that Gabon has major benefits and offers opportunities. Having said that, like any other country we like to protect our interests and at the same time, we are driven by our desire to achieve emerging country status.
This means, on the one hand, the consolidation of our friendships and our historical ties and, on the other, the diversification of our partnerships.
The example of the special economic zone at Nkok that you mentioned is an eloquent, visible and concrete illustration of this. It is part of the process of opening up Gabon internationally and our strategy of diversification, in addition to the oil industry, by the local processing of timber.
Apart from this example, my visit to Singapore also allowed me to hold fruitful talks with the bosses of around 20 companies, which led to increased and broader investment from Singapore in new and high added-value sectors. This is also the case with other countries and investors.
Q: For decades, France has been Gabon’s principal partner. As a consequence, how have your relations with France changed?
A: France remains our leading economic partner. Our relations could not be better; they are friendly and there is mutual respect. As with any relationship, those involved have to nurture and enrich it and make sure that both parties understand the other’s interests. The world changes and so do international economic relations.
To illustrate these new economic realities, last year we signed a four-way agreement with Technip France, India’s Tata, Olam and the Republic of Gabon for the creation of a urea production site in the future Free Zone on Mandji Island. The agreement is worth several hundred million euros.
Q: Even though the ban on exporting unprocessed wood will benefit the people in the long run, it has caused considerable anxiety since the forestry sector is the biggest employer.
Similarly, a social housing project such as Angondjé, a certified sustainable development district that is innovative, ambitious and will provide long-term solutions for Libreville’s housing problems, is attracting criticism and causing concern.
What do you have to say to the Gabonese to convince them that you have their interests at heart?
A: I think the answer is in the question. The project you mention is innovative and constitutes in itself an answer to the lack of social housing in Gabon.
My fellow countrymen are aware of this. I would also like to add that I refute these claims that have more to do with prejudice than reality.
Do you think that the beneficiaries of national health insurance who now have access to health services see that as a non-event?
Do you believe that the students whose grants have been increased by between 10 and 25% and are now much better managed see it as an illusion?
And what about the African Cup of Nations 2012 that would never have taken place because of a supposed lack of sporting and health facilities, and hotels?
Go and talk to the people in the timber industry and ask them how their results changed between 2009 and the first quarter of 2012 and you will realise that they are not complaining.
For your information, many industrial groups have reported better than expected results so far this year.
The Gabonese people realise this every day and they will see more and more of these essential improvements to their quality of life. As for housing, I would invite you to look up the details in the minutes of the Presidential Council meeting of 22nd May 2012.
Q: One of the major items of your strategy, ‘Green Gabon’, cuts across all the key sectors of your programme. The idea is to move towards industrialisation while preserving the Gabonese ecosystem. Could this be a pioneering approach for the continent?
A: When developing the National Climate Plan, Gabon adjusted its vision of sustainable development. It introduced the notion of climate into the national development programme. That is why the Development Plan ‘Emergent Gabon’ was revisited to enable industrialisation and low greenhouse gas emissions.
By taking this decision, Gabon chose to link its institutional framework to its development goals. That is why it is preferable to take the following measures:
To attach Sustainable Development to the Ministry of Economics. This measure will demonstrate to the international community the desire of the Gabonese authorities to build a diversified economy with controlled greenhouse gas emissions. The Ministry might be called the Ministry of Economics and Sustainable Development.
The creation of the National Sustainable Development Agency (ANDD). This body, attached to the President of the Republic, but placed under the authority of the Ministry of Economics and Sustainable Development, will be the technical structure for implementing environmental policies and fighting climate change; it will, if necessary, propose strategic options to the government.
In the same way, it will be in charge of managing the other Rio conventions including those covering biodiversity and desertification.
The creation of organs to take responsibility for environmental issues in each ministerial department and in all the businesses that may have an impact on the environment. These entities will be the focal points for the ANDD.
The creation of entities to take responsibility for the environment in all the communes of Gabon to meet the need for decentralisation. These entities will take care of issues to do with the urban environment. These organs will also be focal points for the ANDD.
Q: You will be participating in the next UN conference on Sustainable Development in Rio in June. What message will you be carrying on behalf of Gabon and Africa?
A: Faithful to its vocation, its policy and its position in this area, Gabon will continue to express its vision, which is to fight the consequences of climate change, prevent deforestation and the deterioration of the soil and to seize the new opportunities offered by the green economy.
We will need, just like the international community, to increasingly develop with method, determination and originality the institutional and operational means to apply the principles of good environmental governance adopted in Rio.
Our carbon footprint usage does not have a Plan B, hence the need to promote understanding between states that are major producers of CO² and those that are suffering the dramatic consequences of climate change.
With this in mind, we encourage initiatives that aim to improve the management of carbon sinks, such as the Congo-Ogooué basin.
This is why we created the Gabonese Agency for the Study and Observation of Space (AGEOS), which will be the first station for processing satellite images of the sub-region and will be responsible for studying our forest cover in order to help us better address forest related issues.
Q: Another major event that is due to take place in Libreville in June is the New York Forum Africa, a chance to show off Emergent Gabon to economic leaders. What are you expecting the event to deliver?
A: It will be an opportunity to meet, see presentations and exchange with people of all levels and from different businesses. As the host, Gabon hopes to reap the rewards in terms of visibility, attractiveness to investors and extended partnerships.
Q: Your place on the continental and international scene is becoming more and more established. Your father, the late Omar Bongo, was an influential player in both North-South and also South-South relations. How do you see your position?
A: I am comfortable being the President of my country, which continues to build on its achievements, correct its shortcomings, create opportunities for itself and contribute to building a world that is caring, peaceful and progressive.
People, humanity and time will be the judges of my presidency. For the moment, I am focused on turning the plans for society for which I was elected by the men and women of Gabon into concrete deeds and actions.
Q: How are relations with your neighbours in the sub-region and beyond? Do the solid relationships with Morocco, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon continue and have the relationships with Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire been refreshed? What about the others?
A: None of them could be better!
Q: The measures taken in Gabon over sustainable development and universal health insurance will not only change
Gabon, but also set an example for the rest of the continent. What is your message to African institutions when you meet with the other heads of state of the continent?
A: We seek inspiration in our own realities, we are open to the fertile contributions made by our partners and we share our respective experiences without trying to give lessons or ready-made formulas that fit all occasions and circumstances.