Interview: President Ali Bongo Ondimba
How effective has the Emerging Gabon Strategic Plan (Plan Stratégique Gabon Emergent, PSGE) been in achieving its goals?
PRESIDENT ALI BONGO ONDIMBA: When I was named president in 2009, the world had just started to recuperate from the financial crisis of 2007-08. We were seeing how the economic and social model based on oil revenues was eroding and no longer able to drive growth. Therefore, the priority has been to rebuild confidence among investors and to create the necessary conditions for inclusive growth. The traditional sectors – such as forestry, mining and oil – had to add value domestically by favouring local processing. Seven years ago this was a new concept, and our ideas were challenged by those who believed that the status quo had to be preserved.
Today, Gabon is going through an economic and social self-determination process, and the PSGE was launched to act as a roadmap to support the various programmes aimed at developing the country and its people.
Despite hiccups, the programme has led the country in the right direction. The Green Gabon pillar has enabled us to develop our agricultural industry and maintain the highest environmental standards possible – resulting in one of the best-kept forests and highest levels of biodiversity in the world. The Industrial Gabon pillar has allowed local industry to develop, encompassing sectors such as construction materials, agro-industry and fast-moving consumer goods. Lastly, the Services Gabon strategy has provided the country with high-speed internet at affordable prices and will continue to do so as we expand the fibre-optic cable network throughout the country.
Failure and success are not ends in themselves but are merely steps that need to be taken in order to move forward. Major advances have been made in infrastructure, administrative reforms and social programmes, with social security covering nearly 1m Gabonese as evidence of progress in the latter. Our ambition is to reach the entire population through our programmes, as well as to improve their livelihoods. Nevertheless, much work is still required.
What challenges need to be overcome to achieve further regional integration?
BONGO ONDIMBA: Regional integration is a historic, socio-economic and even political need. When we speak of an emergent Gabon, it makes sense to put this within a regional context, especially given that CEMAC countries share similar dynamics. Five of the six countries within the area are oil producers, and as a consequence share the same challenges stemming from exogenous pressures. We must, therefore, support each other by making use of our respective strengths. We should also evaluate the means of achieving a mutual development policy and make use of co-development zones to achieve economies of scale at a regional level.
We can see that member countries don’t always maintain up-to-date national files, which constitutes a serious impediment to the integration of the block. We speak of free circulation of people and goods, yet it is these national files which guarantee such liberties. All the same, in order to foment commerce, we must build the infrastructure necessary for trade. I tend to reference the fact that you can drive from Oslo to Rome without a problem. Can we say the same about Africa?
We are currently looking at the possibility of abolishing the visa requirements for high-ranking public officers and professors in order to encourage government visits and university exchanges.
What reforms can reduce the disparity between urban centres and rural areas in Gabon?
BONGO ONDIMBA: It is heartbreaking to see that people living in the country’s rural areas are being forced to move to cities in order to find employment; however, it is a reality. Only through hard work and endeavour can we encourage them to remain in their respective provinces. In Gabon we have trade balance deficits in agriculture, as we import 85% of our produce. For this reason, we launched the Gabonese Initiative for Achieving Agricultural Outcomes with Engaged Citizenry (Gabonaise des Réalisations Agricoles et des Initiatives des Nationaux Engagés, GRAINE) in December 2014. GRAINE was not only undertaken to address our trade balance, but to ensure self-sufficiency in food and provide sustainable employment in rural areas. In addition, we have taken measures to encourage the decentralisation of the state so rural provinces are able to have greater autonomy and improved access to services.
With regard to infrastructure, we have connected some remote areas to the road network. For example, people that wanted to reach Mayumba were forced to wait two days for the ferry along the Bayou River. The construction of a 500-metre bridge has opened the city up to the rest of the country and has reduced the risks associated with the journey. An ongoing project is the road from Port-Gentil – the economic capital of the country – to Ombouee. This project, which is on track to be finalised by 2018, will not only benefit our two largest cities, but will also contribute to the integration of adjacent cities.
What are the key priorities of the Programme for Equal Opportunities?
BONGO ONDIMBA: The underlying concept behind this programme is to encourage the redistribution of the benefits of growth and development among all Gabonese people. Its main goal is to create the conditions for a social ladder, based on meritocracy, with the hope that individuals will no longer be bound by their status at birth, their region or by their political affiliations.
The women and youth of Gabon are particularly marginalised, and as a result are directly targeted through this programme. With unemployment primarily affecting these demographics, we are implementing initiatives to ease their access to the labour market. For example, we will build six vocational training centres in Gabon to boost professional integration within sectors that lead directly to skilled jobs. Moreover, the Programme for Equal Opportunities also suggests that individuals will be able to profit from work within their own provinces by having access to the same services as those living in cities. The health sector can also contribute to equal opportunities through the implementation of a system of “social shock absorbers” to allow for those in the most fragile segments of the economy to have access to health care and medicine. We believe that employment levels and the penetration rate of social security will serve as good indicators of the programme’s success.
To what extent are the education and health care systems responding to the needs of the market?
BONGO ONDIMBA: As previously stated, Gabon is moving towards an industrial vision where adding value domestically is incentivised or even demanded. We must therefore create a conducive environment for these new industries to develop, starting with our human capital. We cannot deny that Gabon has a real need for professional training, given the lacklustre ability of the education system to respond to the needs of the market. Therefore, to develop our human capital we inaugurated the Oil and Gas Institute in 2010 in order to respond to the needs of the oil industry, and in 2016 we will be opening the doors to the School of Mining and Metallurgy, which will train engineers in the fields of mining and metallurgy. Both of these projects – established in partnership with local operators – are symbolic of our approach to public-private partnerships. Furthermore, we have also begun construction of the new School of Wood to assist the forestry sector.
In terms of health care, several hospitals have sprung up in recent years, with the latest being the Owendo University Hospital, which opened its doors in 2015. In 2016 we will also deliver the Jeanne Ebori Hospital in Libreville, which will act as a regional health care centre specialising in health care for mothers and children.
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