President of Gabon Ali Bongo Ondimba returned home late January 14 from his convalescence in Morocco, where he had been following a stroke he suffered while in Saudi Arabia on October 24. Ondimba did not appear in the Gabonese public, but nonetheless asserted the functions of his office by swearing in his new government led by newly-appointed Prime Minister Julien Nkoghe Bekale.
It’s rare that seemingly personalized systems of government face the sort of test to their chain of executive authority that Gabon had to experience since October. Concerns as to continuity of government and political stability were raised in Gabon due to the president’s extended absence from the country, concerns that were inflamed in some quarters due to the dearth of public information as to the true state of Ondimba’s health. While the Gabonese government under then-Prime Minister Emmanuel Issoze Ngondet and Vice President Pierre-Claver Maganga Moussavou were very cautious in their decision-making, wanting to ensure they complied with all legality and prerogative during the president’s absence, their actions not only ensured no disruption to Gabon’s geopolitical stability but successfully negotiated funding instruments with international financial institutions, successfully negotiated what had been contentious and ongoing austerity measures disputes with the country’s public sector union Dynamique unitaire and labor tensions with the oil sector union the National Organization of Petroleum Employees (ONEP). During this time the Gabonese government saw Fitch raise the country’s sovereign credit rating.
Ondimba’s return, though not meaning that the president has returned to full health complete functionality, satisfies that the Gabon regime, of which Ondimba is the patron, did not buckle to internal or opposition challengers wanting to exploit a potential loophole in the country’s balance of power. An attempted and unprecedented military coup failed, and rallies by prominent opposition activists did not gain popular traction. The ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (known by its French acronym, PDG), essentially the only political party to have governed the Gulf of Guinea country, did not flinch, though to be sure the president’s extended absence (and continued frailty) was a challenge for the personalized style of power and decision-making that Gabonese citizens and politicians had come to depend on.
The swearing in of a new cabinet means renewed energy and direction for the Gabonese government. Ondimba himself is likely to continue convalescing from his stroke, and whether at home or abroad is unclear. But the effect of the country’s ruling PDG having successfully ensured continuity of government during an unprecedented uncertainty over the chain of executive decision-making validates a mature geopolitical outlook for Gabon.