Unrest spreads in Gabon ahead of presidential poll

Strikes in schools, hospitals and in private business, along with a drop in vital oil revenues, have brought turbulent times for Gabon`s President Ali Bongo Ondimba.

AFP| Updated: Mar 17, 2015, 09:51 AM IST

Libreville: Strikes in schools, hospitals and in private business, along with a drop in vital oil revenues, have brought turbulent times for Gabon`s President Ali Bongo Ondimba.

Rallied by a score of trade unions in the public sector, teachers and health workers have stayed off work since the beginning of February to press home their wage claims, prompting the administration to dock pay.

In weeks of rowdy negotiations, the strikers` representatives have made no concessions to the government of the densely forested equatorial African country, which benefits from plentiful oil reserves as well as tropical hardwood.

Teachers` unions have threatened to write off the current academic year for students if the government refuses to meet their demands for a substantial rise in the minimum monthly salary from 80,000 CFA francs (122 euros, $129 dollars) to 300,000 CFA francs. 

"The government shot itself in the foot by deciding to cut the wages of striking staff," said a leader of the movement, Marcel Libama. 

"This pointless tactic won`t affect our determination to pursue the struggle for our country. Classrooms have remained shut," he added.

"This (school) year can no longer be salvaged."

In rejecting the teachers` claims, the government argued that to comply would mean a spending hike "from 680 billion CFA francs (one billion euros, $1.1 billion) to 2,500 billion CFA francs per year ... which is insupportable for the smooth running of the state."

But as so often in Gabon, the last word lies with the president, whose role it is to mediate during such clashes, though critics hold him primarily responsible for social discontent.

Ali Bongo has ruled since a disputed presidential election in August 2009. The poll was held within three months after his father Omar Bongo died in office after leading the country for no fewer than 41 years. March 10, Bongo called for classes to resume, asserting that he had met the main demands of the strikers. According to his spokesman Alain-Claude Bilie By Nze, the president agreed to performance bonuses and the introduction of a "new pay scale". 

"We want something concrete!" countered an unimpressed maths teacher, asking not to be named. "What does it mean, `to revise the pay system`? Are they going to raise our basic salary, yes or no?"

Lambert, a high school teacher in the capital Libreville, earns a gross monthly income of 450,000 CFA francs (680 euros), on top of which he is paid a further 200,000 CFA francs in allowances for housing, transport and the like.

"Some teachers with the same promotions, the same seniority as me obtain bonuses that can total twice as much," he complained. "It`s all so crooked that no one understand it."

"All civil servants are affected, not just we teachers," Lambert added.

Recent strikes have also paralysed firms in the private sector. Gabon was nearly cut off from the rest of the world late in February and then early in March when workers at the main Internet provider Gabon Telecom walked off the job, demanding higher wages.

During the first two weeks of December, oil workers also downed tools, heavily disrupting production and sparking major energy shortages in Libreville. Since oil accounts for 60 percent of state revenue, the tension undermined Bongo`s regime.

At the same time, many major infrastructure projects have ground to a standstill for lack of funds. Despite oil and mineral wealth, about a third of the population of some 1.6 million still lives in deep poverty.

Less than two years ahead of the next presidential poll, the opposition is taking advantage of the groundswell of discontent to call on Bongo to step down.

An opposition rally turned bloody in Libreville on December 22, with different sources reporting between one and three fatal casualties.

The outcome of the last presidential poll in 2009 led to violence and looting in Port Gentil, the country`s second city on the Atlantic and a hub of the oil and timber trades.

"It`s now more than 50 years that we`ve put up with the same family in power and nothing has changed for we `makaya` (street people). We want change," young, unemployed Prospere told AFP.