By Paul Ndiho, Libreville, Gabon
The central African nation of Gabon recently signed significant development deals. Gabon’s new president Ali Ben Bongo wants to diversify the country’s economy amid declining oil production.
Gabon depended on timber and manganese until oil was discovered offshore in the early 1970s. The oil sector now accounts for more than 50% of Gabon’s gross domestic product. But the country’s oil output has been declining for years and now President Ali Bongo Ondimba says it’s time to move the country in a new direction. Addressing a press conference at his residence President Bongo, said that Gabon needs to diversify its economy.
“We are going to put in place an economic plan that is going to bring us more income so that there is a push that will boost the economy to reach economic growth and then we will be than able to use those revenues to improve the conditions of our people.”
Last week the government signed a strategic agreement with Singapore-based Company, OLAM International, to jointly develop a special economic zone 27 kilometers east of Libreville. Under the agreement, OLAM will invest about $12 million in the development project for a 60 percent stake in a joint venture, while the Gabonese government holds the rest. Amandine Ogouebendja, head of marketing for Gabon’s special economic zone says this development project will improve Gabon’s infrastructure, build social housing projects and create over 50,000 jobs.
“This is part of the president’s vision and the expectation is that we have to have this industrial zone ready in the three years, period.”
On education, the President acknowledges that Gabon still has one of the highest illiteracy rates in Africa, but defends his policies on education that they are trying to put better teachers in class rooms, reduce number of kids per classroom, and build more schools.
“Our problem is not from kids not going to school, kids are going to school. Our problem is to improve the level of education that these kids are getting.”
On paper, Gabon enjoys a per capita income four times that of most sub-Saharan African nations, but because of high income inequality, a large proportion of the population remains poor. A drive through the suburbs of the capital Libreville changes the narrative. People are on the streets trying to make living by selling everything from fresh food stuffs, clothing and house hold items. In Libreville, images of the former president are seen side-by-side with those of the new leader.
Analysts say despite the abundance of natural wealth, poor fiscal management continues to hobble the economy, as does elaborate defense spending. Last week, the military put on a grand parade that attracted thousands of people as Gabon marked its 50th anniversary of independence from France