By Maher Mezahi
THE JURY IS SPLIT ON BONGO
A solitary Republican Guard footman keeps watch in front of President Ali Bongo Ondimba’s home in La Sablière, north Libreville.
“He is a simple man,” averred Jean, a 34 year-old taxi driver hailing from neighbouring Cameroon.
“It is impossible that I see my president driving his car to Friday prayers and back like Bongo.
“Look there is only one guard in front of his home. Everyone knows where he lives.”
Jean is one of hundreds of thousands of economic migrants that call Gabon home. The Central African nation is an economic carrefour, attracting sizeable Congolese, Burkinabe and Cameroonian communities.
North of La Sablière in the newer neighbourhood of Angondjé, Geraldine is a little less keen on extolling the humble qualities of her president. A Franco-Gabonese middle-aged woman from the upper echelons of Libreville society, Geraldine is conflicted about her country’s hosting of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.
“There was more excitement in 2012 when we co-hosted with Equatorial Guinea. With oil prices dropping and the recent election, people do not think it is the right time.”
“I have a friend who works in the public sector, for instance, and her salary has been delayed for three months already.”
Central to the fractious elections of August 2016 that Geraldine referred to, was the plunge of petrol prices and the Bongo regime’s failure to diversify the economy.
In a televised interview with China Global Television Network, president Bongo deflected claims that his government had not sufficiently prepared for the post-petrol era, claiming he has instituted reforms in various sectors including mining, agriculture and forestry.
“I suggested, when we attended the last TICAD meeting in Tokyo, that we put ourselves under pressure so that by the year 2020, there will be no more raw goods exported outside the country.”
Bongo implemented the idea in Gabon in 2010, ordering that national companies no longer export unprocessed lumber. Forestry accounts for 6% of Gabon’s Gross Domestic Product, raking in 1.2 billion US Dollars per annum.
Geraldine acknowledges Bongo’s initiative, but claims it was a vague move that has not been correctly implemented.
“The companies that used to export primary materials do not know how to process it before exporting. The result is that many have suffered economically or have closed down.”
CAF STRIKE CONTROVERSIAL DEALS
On the eve of the continental competition, CAF held a press conference at the Radisson Blu Hotel. General Secretary, Hichem El Amrani, and Media Director, Junior Binyam, were quick to point out CAF’s lucrative new sponsorship deals with a trifecta of French corporations.
Oil and gas company Total replaced Orange as headline sponsor, though the telecommunications giant remains an important partner. Media conglomerate Lagardère Group also secured broadcasting rights for a cycle of eight years.
Though the ins and outs of the deals remain undisclosed, reliable African outlets have reported the Total deal is worth approximately $30 million USD per year.
Such an influx of funds has allowed CAF to raise the ceiling on prize money so that the champions of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations earned $4 million USD.
A fortnight before the tournament, CAF had been referred for prosecution in Egypt by the Competition Authority (ECA) who claimed that CAF had not provided other broadcasters a fair opportunity to bid for global broadcasting rights.
The issue was even mentioned during the 28th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, as a motion, “denounced with vigour the injustice incurred to African youth during this global event, the Africa Cup of Nations.”
The motion equally slammed the ‘monopolistic position that international lobbies have over broadcasting rights”.
A COSTLY TOURNAMENT
Yet if African youth around the continent were offered limited televised access to matches, it seemed that the youth in Libreville simply refused to attend the opening ceremony ahead of a match that pitted Gabon against Guinea-Bissau.
Two hours before the match radio silence filled the roads in Angondjé. Abandoned social housing projects, like ‘Lotissement Angondjé VI’ amplified the lack of noise ahead of the beginning of the tournament. 22 concrete shells sat huddled together awaiting completion behind a billboard of the country’s star striker, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Criticism of the event amplified when the financial budget for the tournament was released and the public learned that $748 million USD was allocated for the organization of the tournament – 3.4% of the country’s GDP.
The budget was partitioned as the National Agency of Major Works and Infrastructure (ANGTI) received $457 million USD and the Organizing Committee (COCAN) was allocated $291 million USD.
CAF refused to predict approximate revenue expected in a later press conference at the Radisson Blu. Binyam did, however, mention that he expected local businesses to enjoy a significant increase in revenue.
A CHANCE TO EXCHANGE
It must be noted that not all locals were opposed to Gabon hosting the Cup of Nations. In Franceville, the heart of the Haut-Ogoué province, where support for the president is high, if not unanimous, many felt differently about the tournament.
Arland works in the canteen of the Stade de la Renovation, where Group B of the Cup of Nations was contested. As a young man of 23, who celebrated the birth of his first child on the first matchday, Arland enjoyed the tournament and is grateful to his president for bringing the spectacle to east Gabon.
“I thank the president, if only for one thing,” he said with a contemplative look in his eye, “and that is the chance for young people like me to interact with visitors from around the world like you. We never had the opportunity to do that before, and we may not every have it again.”