Missing President Threatens Power Struggle in Oil-Rich Gabon

(Bloomberg) -- Three weeks after Gabon President Ali Bongo was rushed to a hospital in Saudi Arabia and stopped appearing in public, his absence risks creating a power vacuum in the central African nation that his family has ruled for half a century.

Bongo, 59, is being treated for an unspecified illness in Riyadh since attending an economic summit on Oct. 24. Two weeks after saying he was suffering from severe fatigue, the government announced on Sunday that Bongo is recovering from a “bleeding,” without giving further details. The government didn’t comment on a Reuters report that he had a stroke.

The uncertainty surrounding Bongo has Gabonese speculating on social media what lies ahead in OPEC’s second-smallest oil producer. He’s been in power since 2009, when he won disputed elections to succeed his father Omar Bongo, who died of heart failure in a Barcelona clinic after ruling for more than four decades. In January he pushed constitutional changes through parliament that expanded his already far-reaching powers.

Foreign investors have also been unnerved. Gabon’s Eurobonds are the worst performers in Africa this month, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Yields on the nation’s $700 million of notes maturing in 2025 rose 4 basis points to 8.8 percent by 10:27 a.m. in London, their highest since Aug. 20.

If the president is incapacitated, the constitution stipulates that the speaker of the Senate take over his duties until elections are held within 60 days. This happened in 2009 to allow for the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party to name Ali Bongo as its candidate in the vote.

Key figures who are likely to play a role in orchestrating a succession are Frederic Bongo, a half-brother of Ali who heads the Republican Guard’s intelligence service, and Prime Minister Emmanuel Issoze-Ngondet, according to opposition activist Michel Ongoundou.

Bongo’s Children

“All that’s going on are mere rumors entertained by the Bongo family,” Ongoundou said by phone from the capital, Libreville. “Communications on Ali Bongo are controlled by his family and not the government.”

Potential candidates from within the Bongo family who could be named to head the ruling party are Ali’s eldest son Noureddin, 25, who’s often accompanied his father on official visits, or his daughter Malika, 32. While the transition of power within the ruling party might be smooth, a fresh election may trigger widespread unrest, said Ryan Cummings, director of Johannesburg-based risk advisory Signal Risk.

Police Crackdown

The 2016 presidential vote was marred by a violent police crackdown as opposition supporters protested election results that few considered plausible. Bongo defeated his main challenger, Jean Ping, by less than 6,000 ballots due to a voter turnout of 99 percent in Bongo’s home province. Turnout in Gabon’s eight other provinces was an average 60 percent.

Ping’s complaints were thrown out by the courts even as European Union observers criticized the elections for lacking transparency and the French government called for a recount. Bongo has since openly courted China, which imports oil, manganese and timber from the nation of less than 2 million people.

Ping, whose Twitter profile describes him as “the elected president” of Gabon, held a rally on Nov. 3 to reiterate his claim that he won in 2016.

“If there is a declaration of a vacancy in the presidency and a due constitutional process isn’t followed, Ping could mobilize his support base to center him as a key stakeholder in any succession,” Cummings said. “This could lead to outbreaks of unrest in major urban centers such as Port-Gentil and Libreville.”

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