Confirming his desire to distance himself from France, Gabonese president Ali Bongo looks determined to break away from his father’s legacy. After festivities marking the central African country’s fiftieth independence anniversary, Omar Bongo’s son is quoted saying that the “exclusive relations between Gabon and France belong to the past”.
“France has its partners, African states also have their partners, they are not exclusive relationships. This does not exist anymore,” said Ali Bongo at the end of Gabon’s fiftieth independence anniversary celebrations on Tuesday. “This does not mean that we are going to break [ties] with our old partners, [but] it is important that we develop our country,” said the the Gabonese president while answering a question about a possible cooling of relations with France.
This statement comes just days after the signing of a 3.5 billion euro deal with multinational companies in India and Singapore. The investment will see the development of the country’s road infrastructure, including the construction of a 1,000 kilometer road, as well as the creation of special economic zones dedicated to wood processing, palm cultivation and the construction of 5000 social houses in the capital, Libreville.
After taking over from his father who died last year, Ali Bongo promised to modernize and diversify a stagnating Gabonese economy whose main income earner, oil, is exploited by the French group Total. For some observers, Ali Bongo is symbolically “killing” his father’s memory by departing from the country’s traditional FranceAfrique (the term refers to France’s influential networks in Africa, an integral component of diplomatic relations between France and its former African colonies) relations.
End of FranceAfrique in Gabon?
For decades, under the leadership of Omar Bongo, Gabon had maintained very close relations with its former colonial master. Indeed, the strong presence of the Bongo family on the political scene is credited to France. The former European colonial power practically hand-picked Omar Bongo to become Head of State in 1967, and until his death, in 2009, Omar Bongo remained a faithful symbol of “France Afrique policies”.
Although Ali Bongo boasts of an extensive network (as Grand Master of Freemasonry in Gabon since 2009) that perhaps gives him the luxury to bypass trade with France, it is understood by experts that, in practice, changing how things work might prove very difficult. They also believe that the recent signing of economic agreements with other countries do not mean much and that only future facts will speak.
In fact, despite declaring that “Gabon without France is like a car without a driver. France without Gabon, is a car without gas”, Omar Bongo awarded an iron ore concession in May 2008 to a Chinese consortium, depriving Vincent Bollore, a French business mogul who is notoriously close to the French president, of a profitable venture.