In Gabon, questions surge over absent president

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President Ali Bongo (File: AFP)
President Ali Bongo (File: AFP)

Political speculation and concerns for the economy have gone into overdrive in Gabon as questions grow over the fate of President Ali Bongo who was hospitalised in Saudi Arabia two weeks ago.

According to a non-Gabonese source close to Bongo, the president "suffered a stroke."

"It's no longer life-threatening, and he is no longer under artificial respiration," the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that Bongo was still in Riyadh.

An AFP journalist who went to Riyadh's King Faisal Hospital where Bongo was admitted, was on Wednesday told that all information on the president's health was subject to either a "royal order" or authorisation from the Gabonese embassy.

Bongo, 59, fell ill on October 24 during a visit to Riyadh to attend an economic forum.

His spokesperson Ike Ngouoni said doctors there had diagnosed him with "severe fatigue" and ordered bed rest.

Since then, there has been no official news, and details that are circulating are either sketchy or unverified.

This vacuum - along with memories of the secrecy-shrouded demise of Bongo's father, Omar Bongo, who died in office in 2009 after decades at the helm - has set the rumour mill churning at full tilt.

"We don't have enough information," said Ange-Gael Makaya Makaya, a university student who said people were "speculating too much" on social media which he said wasn't an accurate indicator of the public mood.

Mamadou Tsoumou, a 65-year-old engineer and former governor of Estuaire province, was equally cautious about over-reacting.

 Doubts and uncertainty 

A Gabonese journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "only a very limited circle of people, including the president's wife, Sylvia Bongo, has access to the facts."

And a diplomat told AFP that the government's official communications strategy, of saying nothing, had only "fuelled doubt".

That uncertainty, in a country where the president has wide-ranging executive powers and wields extensive personal influence, is starting to weigh on the business sector.

"A Gabonese business leader told me he was planning to put the brake on a number of projects in which he had invested," said economist Mays Mouissi.

Bongo served as foreign and defence minister during his father's rule, and was elected head of state in August 2009 after his death.

He was narrowly re-elected in 2016 following a presidential poll marred by deadly violence and allegations of fraud.

Despite the official silence, Bongo is still officially expected in Paris for this Sunday's November 11 centennial commemorations of the World War I armistice, a French diplomat said.

A history of secrecy 

Memories are still fresh of the news blackout surrounding the final weeks of Omar Bongo, who served as president for 42 years.

In May 2009, the government said Bongo had taken time off to mourn the death of his wife and had gone to Spain to rest.

At the same time, the international media was reporting that Bongo was stricken with cancer and had been rushed to Barcelona for treatment.

The government persistently denied the reports until, on June 8, it announced that Bongo had died of a heart attack - a day after it had been reported by a French news weekly.

The Gabonese constitution sets down clear procedures if the president is incapable of continuing in office.

The government, Senate or National Assembly must ask the Constitutional Court to confirm a presidential vacancy.

Once this is done, the speaker of the Senate is declared interim president, pending the holding of elections, which must be held within 45 days.

 'Plane crash' 

"Nobody really knows what's happening," said a source close to the Bongo clan.

"It's like being on a plane just before it crashes," said a member of the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG).

A Gabonese political analyst said the centre of power was divided between two groups.

"On one side, there's the 'hardline group,' which has several generals and advisers clustered around Frederic Bongo, the president's brother and head of the intelligence service," he said.

Hovering in the wings is opposition leader Jean Ping, who lost the violence-hit 2016 elections to Bongo by a few thousand votes.

On Saturday, Ping - who insists he is the country's truly elected president - broke a months-long silence to make a "speech to the nation" from his home in Libreville.

He called on citizens to "transcend their divisions and place the nation above our individual ethnic or clan interests."

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