Gabon’s new President Ali Ben Bongo has won over some doubters with early policy shifts, but many in the central African nation still await proof of a real break with the era of his long-ruling father Omar.
The relaxed atmosphere on the streets of the capital Libreville yesterday was a far cry from the mood in August, when Ben Bongo’s disputed election victory sparked clashes between anti-riot police and supporters of his aggrieved rivals.
While few expected the unrest to last in an oil-producing country that is wealthier and more stable than most of its neighbours, even sceptics said Ben Bongo had earned respect with moves to rein in once-rampant cronyism and state profligacy.
"He is slowly enjoying the confidence of some of those who voted against him," said local activist Nicaise Moulombi of steps to sack once untouchable politicians and a vow to clean out ghost workers in the country’s bloated civil service.
Ben Bongo scored 42% of the vote in an August 30 poll denounced by rivals as fraudulent. Some observers said he could only retain power by forming a national unity government, but the opposition has proved too divided to apply any pressure.
One of Bongo’s first steps was to slash from 50 to 30 the number of ministers in government. Officials running state businesses have also seen monthly salaries capped at 5 million CFA francs down from over 25 million CFA for some.
An audit of the civil service whose staff swelled over the years to 55 000 as posts were handed out to family, friends and foes in a vast web of patronage has gone down well.
"He has done well by reducing government. People are supporting the audit. If all this is followed through, he could make some savings," Moulombi added.
Gabon, long one of Sub Saharan Africa’s major oil producers, still pumps some 270 000 barrels per day but critics say much of the earnings were squandered over the years and Ben Bongo is under pressure to diversify the economy as reserves dwindle.
Analysts said vast oil revenues allowed Bongo to buy social peace through co-opting much of the opposition and turning a blind eye to corruption that allowed cash to trickle down into the economy, albeit in an inefficient way.
Away from a seafront boulevard dotted with shopping malls full of imported goods, Ben Bongo’s efforts to clean up that system have gone down well at market stalls whose owners said they could already feel the pinch of the new austerity measures.
"We hope that it won’t last too long and, in the future, it will help," said Samuel Kouam, a trader from Cameroon who was attracted by Gabon’s riches 10 years ago but wants reform.
"It is good to have a break from the past. There was all this easy money."
Yet Libreville is still a long way off looking like the modern and efficient "Emerging Gabon" portrayed by Ben Bongo’s high-tech mass media "Ali ‘9" election campaign.
Many state schools remain closed due to a teachers’ strike and a power cut left parts of the city in darkness for 36 hours last week.
After the excesses of the previous administration Omar Bongo was one of Africa’s richest men critics say claims of reform may work for investors but ring hollow at home.
"We can’t just attract investors by saying we are emerging. We have to be it. That is our problem in Gabon the habit of talking," said Gregory Mintsa, a local activist involved in a case that had been taken to French courts accusing Omar Bongo of corruption.
"The hope is that he (Ben Bongo) has inherited so much that he won’t need to steal any more now that he is in power."