Gabon – COP-26 Puts Spotlight on Corruption

President Ali Bongo Ondimba is still in his 60s and shows no sign of a desire to turn over the reins when his current term ends in 2023. Even so, questions about the state of his health have given rise to speculation about a possibly dynastic succession that would see political control turned over to the president’s son, Noureddin Bongo Valentin, who will turn 30 next March but was serving as his father’s chief of staff until September, when he took on another key role as strategic campaign adviser for the ruling PDG.

The incumbents are heavily favored to remain in power beyond 2023, but discontent generated by widespread poverty and the chronic problems of pollution, water shortages, and power outages that adversely affect daily life in the capital, Libreville, has been reinforced by the hardships associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Frustration over health restrictions has triggered episodes of violence, contributing to increased turmoil risk that could persist through to the elections that are still two years away.

Foreign actors meanwhile face pressure to provide financial support in exchange for Gabon’s agreement to preserve its tropical rainforests for the benefit of the global climate, an arrangement that many fear will merely provide a new opportunity for the Bongo clan and its allies to fatten their bank accounts. Bongo has enthusiastically joined the COP-26 pledge to end deforestation by 2030, but only in return for access to a share of the billions of dollars earmarked to achieve this aim.

Vincent de Paul Massassa, the minister of oil, gas, hydrocarbons, and mines, is the current focus of corruption allegations, but that has not prevented the progress of a licensing round for 12 shallow-water and 23 deep-water offshore blocks for which bidding opened in 2018 but was only closed this past June due to delays related to the pandemic. While talking up Gabon’s climate responsibilities, officials are keen to maximize the near-term potential of offshore drilling, albeit by focusing on gas extraction as a stepping-stone to weaning off hydrocarbons altogether.

The economy is slowly improving from the pandemic-induced downturn and is forecast to expand by 1%-2% in real terms this year, before kicking into a higher gear in 2022. The IMF has approved a three-year ECF worth more than $550 million, but disbursements beyond the initial distribution of $115.25 are tied into the satisfactory implementation of an economic recovery strategy that includes structural reforms required to contain the mounting debt and the liberalization of currency and monetary policy at the level of regional institutions.

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