- As the very grave health condition of the 73 years old Gabonese President Omar Bongo is confirmed, speculations over his succession are growing in numbers. Will it be a family affair as in Togo, or will it be a coup like in Guinea?
Since 6 May, President Bongo is not actively leading the country he has been in total control of since 1967. According to the government, he is mourning his late wife, who died in March. Official Spanish sources nevertheless yesterday confirmed Mr Bongo is "seriously ill" and has been admitted to a Barcelona clinic for at least two weeks. The message indicated Mr Bongo risked not coming back to Gabon alive.
For everybody else than his closest family, yesterday's news of President Bongo's serious health situation came as a total surprise, and the Libreville government wants the Gabonese to keep believing in Mr Bongo's return to power. But the population mainly directs its suspicions towards those knowing - the Bongo family.
What are they planning? President Bongo has placed many family members in key positions and the country is ruled by a small elite close to the President and his family. Will the Bongo family repeat the success of the Gnassingbé family of Togo, with which it has excellent ties, where power passed from father to son in a swift coup when the long-time dictator died; later legitimising the coup with manipulated elections?
The parallels to Togo are striking. The Gabonese opposition especially fear President Bongo's son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, who acts as Minister of National Defence and Security in Gabon and is said to have total control of security forces. Ali Bongo is in a position to easily take power if he decides so.
But also the oldest daughter of President Bongo is well positioned to take on power in a more legitimate way. Pascaline Bongo Ondimba, formerly Minister of Foreign Affairs, now serves as Director of the Presidential Cabinet and could be in a position to make cabinet pass on powers to her as Acting President.
This would however somewhat break with the constitutional order, which foresees that in case of the President's death, the Head of Senate assumes powers as Acting President for a duration of maximum 90 days. This period is to be used to organise elections. The Gabonese Senate is currently headed by Rose Francine Rogombe. Ms Rogombe, if allowed to take on transition powers, would be constitutionally banned from running as presidential candidate.
None of the mentioned has wanted to act in public so far. Ali Bongo has made no public statements and Gabon's armed forces are laying low. Ms Rogombe is staying in the background. And even Pascaline Bongo is careful not use her powers in the cabinet, leaving these to the Vice President. Ms Bongo herself is reported to spend most of her time at her father's sickbed in Barcelona.
Since Mr Bongo suspended his activities earlier this month, Vice President Didjob Divungi Di Ndinge has been heading cabinet meetings in Libreville and is formally leading the country. Mr Ndinge has no constitutional rights to take on power in case of Mr Bongo's death.
If President Bongo's succession will be a family affair, it seems that the scenario might be coming sooner than the Bongo family had planned for. While the President has placed family members in key positions, he still had not helped constructing his son's and daughter's independent power position - probably out of fear for an inside family coup such as experienced in neighbouring Equatorial Guinea.
President Bongo earlier this year in statements to the press repeated that there were no preparations for his succession. "I am the candidate in 2012," the next regular presidential elections in Gabon, Mr Bongo said. Famous last words?
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