H.E. Ali Bongo Ondimba

Gabon’s mission to diversify its economy and protect the environment

Letting go of oil

Oxford quizzes President Ondimba on everything from elections to elephants.

Gabon can’t wait: that was the message from the country’s President, H.E. Ali Bongo Ondimba, when he visited Saïd Business School on 9 October 2018. The world was alert to the importance of Africa for future prosperity – ‘More people have more at stake on our continent than anywhere else in the world’ – but there were still complex challenges and an urgent need for transformation.  

‘I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but what I have is a determination to move Gabon from an ordinary economy vulnerable to external shocks to a fully diversified competitive economy with world class capability in forestry, sustainable mining, energy and new technology,’ he said.

President Ondimba was speaking in conversation with Professor Wale Adebanwi, Director of the Oxford Africa Centre. Together they covered a wide range of topics before the President took questions from members of the student audience.


President Ondimba echoed other African leaders when he spoke of the importance of education and of developing skills and employment. ‘One of the biggest challenges Africa faces is the mismatch of education and skills and opportunities. Until we fix this our economy will remain uncompetitive and social immobility will soar.’

He made a direct appeal to the African students in the room to contribute to the continent’s development, saying that they are building the skills, knowledge, and networks that Africa needs, ‘But you can’t do this in a classroom – you need to stress test your theory in real life and apply your ideas in practise to see what is sustainable ... African leaders need the world’s best and brightest minds applied to our toughest problems; we need to be challenged with fresh thinking and new ideas to break the vicious cycles.’

The audience
H.E Ali Bongo Ondimba


It was clear that President Ondimba is passionate about the environment – dating, he said, from when he was a boy and his father showed him pictures of the rainforest that looked like ‘the Garden of Eden’. He described the shock he felt at the lack of progress at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit.

‘We knew that if we did not reduce the world temperature by two degrees centigrade we were going to be in deep trouble … [but] it was impossible to have an agreement,’ he said. ‘We were there for two days and at the end of the day President Obama was able to strike a deal. It was not a good deal but still better than having no deal.’

It was this unsatisfactory result, he said, that gave additional impetus to developing Gabon’s own climate strategy: ‘Coming out of Copenhagen I was distressed, so when we got back I immediately called a meeting with the administration and business leaders and said … we are preserving especially the rainforest; we have to be able to maintain business activity but at the same time preserve it. I don’t want anybody to say that it is not possible.’

Describing the lengths they were going to in Gabon to support the economically important timber industry while protecting the rainforest, he was forceful about the consequences of not acting on climate change. ‘If we are not careful it will lead to a shortage of water and because of that we might end up in a conflict. No water means no agriculture so it means climate refugees. Now nobody has heard that term “climate refugee” but this is what is coming if we are not careful. And where do you think those refugees will go? Some African countries, yes – but most of them will come [to Europe].’

H.E Ali Bongo Ondimba on stage


Wildlife and the environment are closely linked – as well as being connected to the economy  through tourism. The President described Gabon’s involvement with the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI), the African-led programme launched in 2014 and now including 19 African countries.

The Initiative has been helped by China’s decision to ban the ivory trade, although there are still some countries in which it is legal. And each African country that is part of the initiative has adopted its own national policy. For Gabon, supporting that policy has included training park rangers to be able to respond to armed poachers. ‘One has to understand that the elephant is not just a beautiful animal but it has an important role to play in regenerating the rainforest. So that is why it is important to protect not only elephants but other animals in danger, especially rhinos,’ he said.

The President described (to laughter) how delighted he was when elephants destroyed the garden and mango trees at his beach house: ‘We were very happy because it meant the elephants were back in a place where they had disappeared for years.’

The audience


Professor Adebanwi asked the President how he would respond to criticisms that he has not fulfilled the promises he made in 2009 when he vowed to ban corruption and redistribute the proceeds of economic growth.

Ondimba essentially argued that change was slow but it was happening – his first term as president had been dominated by ‘a battle of generations’ within the administration, he said, but progress had been made on diversifying the economy and reducing Gabon’s dependence on oil revenues.

He was reluctant to discuss details of the 2016 election, when his victory was bitterly disputed, but claimed that the first round of the municipal elections [held just three days before] had vindicated him and his approach. ‘A staff member said to me, “how can you take tough measures before the election -- cutting down salaries, slashing especially in the administration more than 6,000 what we call ghost workers, reducing staff members by 40%.” But last Saturday was a landslide for my party … so the message that I have for the Gabonese is clear – reform, reform, reform – now I will get in trouble if I don’t do that’.

He believed that limiting presidential terms was not effective – ‘You need a certain time to apply your programme’ – and pointed out that term limits are not a feature of European democracies. He also felt that the easy communication and access to information facilitated by the Internet meant that ‘sooner or later’ corruption would catch up with people.

President Ondimba concluded with an impassioned plea for collaboration. ‘Infrastructure and energy are two important items where we think we should be working together, where you should be helping us -- sending your companies to help us build dams and create new factories. It will give new jobs to some in your company and it will give jobs to Africa. Our message is come and build with us so that we can talk about a brighter future for all of us.’

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