On June 8, 2009, Omar Bongo Ondimba, Gabon’s 73-year old president, died after a record 43 years in office. Political observers keenly watched the political transition not merely because after close to half a century of Bongo’s iron rule, Gabon was moving into uncharted territory with the potential for instability but also because like in many other Francophone African countries, Gabon did not have a constitutional successor – a dauphin – to the President.
Ali-Ben Bongo of Gabon with Paul Biya (c) PRC
Among those watching the Gabonese situation closely were the ruling elite in neighboring Cameroon where 77-year President Biya was preparing for yet another seven-year presidential mandate in 2011, which would most likely eventually lead to a Gabonese-type situation in the country – the laws of nature being what they are, President Biya has less, not more time left at the helm of the state.
Following the death of Omar Bongo on June 8, 2009, Gabon was confronted with a peculiar constitutional situation; it had a Vice President, Didjob Divungi Di Ndinge, who was the President’s deputy but not his constitutional successor, and a Prime Minister, Jean Eyeghe Ndong, Head of Government, also not the President’s constitutional successor. To resolve this constitutional conundrum, Article 13 of the Gabonese constitution stipulated that in the event of a permanent vacancy at the helm of the state, the powers of the president would be temporarily exercised by the President of the Senate or the First Vice President of the Senate if the Senate President was unable to do so.
Article 13 also stipulated that the Interim President was required to organize presidential elections (in which he or she could not be a candidate) within 30-45 days, unless in the event of a force majeure established by the Constitutional Court.
Overview of Gabonese Transition
Two days after the death of President Bongo, Rose Francine Rogombé, the 66-year old female President of the Senate, was sworn in as the Interim President of Gabon with the primary, if not sole task of managing the post-Bongo transition to its logical conclusion.
On August 30, the presidential election was organized with 11 candidates taking part. Ali Ben Bongo, the son of the late President and candidate of the ruling PDG party, was declared the winner and sworn in as President about a month later, thereby concluding a transition which went on far much smoother than was generally expected.
The Cameroonian ruling elite were quite pleased with the relatively peaceful transition in Gabon which confirmed the continuity of the “système Bongo” and preserved the privileges and powers of members of the ancien regime who would have been swept away and even persecuted had anti-Bongo forces taken control of the transition process. The outcome of the Gabonese transition therefore comforted Cameroon’s ruling elite in their belief that the no-automatic-successor system of government remained the best option for Cameroon. No surprise, therefore, that even before Ali Bongo was officially sworn in as President of Gabon, President Biya went out of his way of way on September 11, 2009 to receive the president-elect with full state honors in Yaounde.
Nonetheless, while the ruling elite in Cameroon may have reason to jubilate over the Gabonese transition, they are most likely drawing the wrong lessons from the said transition, and/or not paying enough attention to the actual details of that transition which reveal a number of disquieting issues that could be potentially destabilizing for Cameroon in the same circumstances. Let’s look at just three of these key issues.
1. The Issue of a Dauphin
Even though Gabon did not have a constitutional successor to President Bongo, it had been an open secret for at least a decade that Ali-Ben Bongo, the President’s son and the country’s defense minister was Omar’s chosen successor; an heir apparent who had the support not only of the ruling PDG party, of which he was a Vice President, but most importantly, also of the military.
Yet, even with all this institutional and military muscle behind him, Ali Bongo’s ascension to the “throne” was not a cakewalk due to the strident opposition that he faced, most notably from within the ruling PDG itself. In fact, during the PDG’s brutal presidential nomination process, there was a record 10 candidates alongside the “Chosen One’, many of whom had enough clout to upset the applecart; among them, Prime Minister Eyeghé Ndong, also a Vice-President of the PDG, Casimir Oye-Mba, former Governor of the Bank of Central African States (BEAC) and former Prime Minister of Gabon, and Daniel Ona Ondo, the First Vice-President of the National Assembly. The nomination process which resulted in Ali Bongo being selected as the PGD candidate was filled with anger and acrimony, with the other candidates claiming that the process had been rigged to favor the late president’s son. In fact, Eyeghé Ndong and Casimir Oye-Mba eventually quit the PDG to run as independent candidates against Ali Bongo.
The only reason the ruling party, and with it the Gabonese state, did not implode during these tense days was because over the years, Ali Bongo had used his position as the preferred presidential child (over his half-sister Pascaline Bongo who also nursed presidential ambitions) and as defense minister to build a solid network of supporters within the ruling class and the military who came to his rescue in his time of need – a military which had already thrown its lot behind the ruling partying after concluding that its corporate interests would be best protected by continuity rather than a rupture with the ancien regime.
In Cameroon it is a different story altogether. There is no single individual within the government or ruling party, who stands out of the enough to be considered a true and potential replacement of President Biya, a “consensus candidate” or “candidate of continuity”. In fact, individuals with presidential ambitions are playing it close to the chest as a result of the morbid fear that has gripped the political class following the decapitation of “G11” (Génération 2011), the mysterious think-tank which was supposedly created by a group of government ministers, director generals of public corporations and army officers interested in taking power in 2011, some of whom – the alleged ring leaders – are now languishing in the Kondengui maximum security prison for a variety of real and imagined crimes against the state…
While it is still unclear whether the G11 was real or just the figment of the imagination of folks who were involved in a vicious guerre de positionnement” among the ruling elite, the fact that its alleged ring leaders are all in jail has cast a pall over any substantive discussions among the elite about post-Biya era. In fact, to insulate themselves against possible accusations that they may have presidential ambitions, (or worse, may be planning a coup d’état), the ruling class has resorted to the strategy of vociferously clamoring for a Biya life presidency!
Thus, unlike Bongo’s Gabon, Cameroon’s constitutional vacuum is accompanied by dangerous political uncertainty with no single individual within government circles standing out as a credible successor to Biya, in spite of the different names being regularly bandied around in official and unofficial circles. Similarly, while any CPDM candidate in a post-Biya election will have an automatic edge over all other candidates thanks to the huge resources at the party’s disposal and to the backing of the military which is also supporting continuity just as in Gabon, there is no one within the CPDM with the clout or network to emerge a credible presidential candidate. Hence, Cameroon’s inevitable guerre the succession, which will instantly etch itself onto the country’s well-known geo-political fault lines, will be worse than anything that we witnessed in Gabon. The result might be a remake of the worse days of the “smoldering years” of the early 1990s with the army playing the determining role by either throwing its lot behind a specific candidate, or why not, taking power for itself…
To be continued...