Paul Ndiho, Washington D.C.
January 14, 2013
On paper, the central African nation of 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. Youth unemployment is over the roof, in spite of country’s vast natural resources.
The International Monetary Fund estimated in a recent report that unemployment and poverty in Gabon remains on the rise despite the abundance of natural resources, including oil, on which the country is still very dependent. But a drive through the suburbs of the capital of Libreville changes the narrative. People are on the streets trying to make living by selling everything from fresh food stuffs, used clothing and house hold items.
In Gabon’s biggest market, customers are patiently waiting at Mont Bouet, where 38-year-old Cedric Wanjda once dreamt of an office job.
But eight years after obtaining his high school diploma and unable to pursue a university education due to lack of school fees, Wanjda was unable to find a job.
In order to support his family, he decided to open a small stall at Mont Bouet where he sells clothes and shoes, bringing in around 400,000 C-F-A (800 USD) per month.
Wandja says that entrepreneurship may become the only solution for Gabon’s youth, faced with growing unemployment.
“Today, many young Gabonese understand that through entrepreneurship, they can feed their families, and maybe one day, they will become influential business men.”
In a country with a population of just 1.5 million people, youth unemployment stands at more than 30 percent despite the country’s vast supply of oil, gold and manganese. A report released by the I-M-F last year suggests that Gabon’s economic growth is projected to slow down to 2.3 percent in 2013, from an expected 5.6 percent in 2012.
Wandja’s story is one shared by many young people in Libreville. Eric Etoung now makes a living as a barber and says that the government should put more emphasis and reinforce the informal sector, to give youths more options in the job market.
“Informal jobs are not valued, when they provide a living for so many young people who have no other options. For example, there are many young people who are studying, and hope to maybe find work in the informal sector, but they lose interest once they find out that informal jobs are not taken seriously, meaning that it’s not viewed as something that would interest many young people. Young people then think that the only employment they can find is one where they sit in an office, when that is not the only solution.”
IN 2010 Gabon launched a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Nkok, near the capital, Libreville. The zone is meant to attract foreign investment, improve Gabon’s infrastructure, build social housing projects and create over 50,000 jobs for its local population. But critics say that’s not enough and more needs to be done.
“The main challenge in Gabon today is that there are around 90,000 to 100,000 unemployed people, mainly young people, some of whom will be finishing their studies and who will be unable to find employment. That may be dramatic, because at the moment the country’s economic predictions are good, prices for raw materials are going up. The government has put in place extensive programs for infrastructure development, and improves the economy to attract more investors. So if we do not adjust the education system to meet the demands of the different sectors, we will have jobs that will be created, but will have no candidates to fill them. There will be young Gabonese who will see jobs being taken by foreigners, who are more qualified than they are.”
Sociology professor Fortune Matsiegui, says the high unemployment levels, caused by years of economic mismanagement where the country’s oil money was wasted away by corrupt leaders, is a ticking bomb, given Gabon’s rich potential.
“We know that Gabon is a country with great potential and is immensely rich. According to the latest economic figures, when you look at the GDP, we are close to becoming a middle income country, meaning that the country’s national wealth distributed amongst the population per year is estimated to be around 3,000 USD to 4,000 USD per person. Which is not little, it’s not a small amount. So we should be amongst the richest country’s not poor or not too rich like some of the biggest economies in the West. But the problem is that the country’s wealth is not evenly distributed.”
Analysts say despite the abundance of natural wealth, poor fiscal management continues to hobble the economy. And with the decline in oil output experts say Gabon should start diversifying its economy to compensate for the decline, and expand its mining industry and improve sectors such as telecommunications, forestry and fishing sectors for more revenues and create more jobs.