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Gabon's Bongo vows to 'complete mission' despite health speculation

Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba on Wednesday completed a decade in office, vowing to push ahead with economic reforms and an anti-corruption drive despite questions over his health after suffering a stroke nearly a year ago.

FILE: Gabon's President Ali Bongo. Picture: AFP

LIBREVILLE - Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba on Wednesday completed a decade in office, vowing to push ahead with economic reforms and an anti-corruption drive despite questions over his health after suffering a stroke nearly a year ago.

"I feel good. And feeling better and better each day," Bongo said in an interview published on Wednesday in the pro-government daily, l'Union.

"I will complete my mission."

Bongo said he was "fiercely determined" to push ahead with a campaign against graft. Government departments have been shaken up in recent weeks with a string of top-level changes.

"Mistakes were made in the past, but they won't be able to be made again in the future," Bongo said.

"Over time, the standards I require of government members has increased while my level of patience has fallen," he said.

During his months-long absence abroad for treatment, speculation over Bongo's fitness surged and the army quashed a brief attempted coup.

At one point his spokesperson was forced to deny rumours that Bongo had died and been replaced by a lookalike, while opposition members made an unsuccessful attempt to have a court assess whether he was fit to rule.

Since returning home, Bongo has attended several well-scripted public events, but every appearance is widely scrutinised for any signs of any disability.

NOSTALGIA FOR FATHER

The drama has played out against the backdrop of a stuttering economy in the country of two million.

Bongo initiated an array of major infrastructure projects after coming to power, such as new roads and stadiums, which drew on a flurry of investment from China.

But oil prices slumped after 2014, provoking an economic crisis and discontent, although the country's political opposition is fractured.

There is widespread nostalgia for the free-spending reign of Bongo's father, Omar Bongo Ondimba, who ruled the country for 42 years until his death in 2009, when he was succeeded by his son.

"Gabon has fallen into deep sleep," said 33-year-old Gael Ndong, reflecting a commonly-expressed opinion. "It was better before."

"Ali Bongo has never enjoyed the legitimacy that his father was able to have," said Florence Bernault, a professor of sub-Saharan history at Sciences Po in Paris.

His reputation was further battered after elections in 2016 marred by deadly violence and allegations of fraud, she added. His current term ends in 2023.

DIVERSIFY

Under Bongo senior, Gabon became an oil major. Today, hydrocarbons account for 80% of exports and almost half of GDP.

Under Bongo junior, the government is trying to diversify the economy, turning to managed forestry, minerals and other underdeveloped sectors to pick up the slack.

But the president's vow 10 years ago to place Gabon on the path to emerging nation status remains "far away" from attainment, said Gabon economist Mays Mouissi.

Gabon may rank among Africa's most prosperous countries but still badly lacks adequate roads, hospitals, homes and and schools.

"Bongo did not know how to efficiently use the oil wealth he benefited from at the start of his first term," said Mouissi, describing the "lost decade" as a wasted opportunity. Joblessness among the young is more than a third.

Bongo, in Wednesday's interview, argued the reforms are "beginning to bear fruit."

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) this month predicted growth will reach 3.4% this year compared with 0.8% in 2018, although "ambitious macroeconomic measures and far-reaching structural reforms" were still needed.

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