January 12, 2019 / 10:06 AM / 3 months ago

Gabon's Bongo names new prime minister after thwarted coup attempt

LIBREVILLE (Reuters) - Gabon’s President Ali Bongo, who has been out of the country for two months recovering from a stroke, named a new prime minister on Saturday in an apparent effort to shore up his political base days after a failed coup attempt.

The plotters of Monday’s coup attempt were arrested or killed within hours of seizing the national radio station, but the move reflected growing frustration with a government weakened by Bongo’s secretive medical leave in Morocco.

In a decree read by the secretary-general of the presidency on national television early on Saturday morning, Bongo named Julien Nkoghe Bekale as prime minister, replacing Emmanuel Issoze-Ngondet, who has served since 2016.

Issoze-Ngondet’s tenure was marked by a sharp drop in oil output and prices that has squeezed revenues, raised debt and stoked discontent in the OPEC member state.

Oil workers’ strikes have become more common, and economic growth was 2 percent last year, down from over 7 percent in 2011.

The nomination of Nkoghe Bekale, 56, who has held several ministerial posts since 2009, represents a return to a tradition begun by Bongo’s father, Omar, of choosing prime ministers from the Fang, Gabon’s largest ethnic group.

Omar Bongo ruled Gabon from 1967 until his death in 2009, establishing the country as a pillar of “Francafrique”, a web of influence that gave companies from former colonial power France favoured access to African autocrats.

The Bongos come from a smaller ethnic group, and the appointments were a way of broadening the president’s base. But Ali Bongo, who succeeded his father when he died, bucked tradition in 2016 by choosing Issoze-Ngondet, who comes from a different ethnic group.

Bongo’s absence from Gabon since his Oct. 24 stroke in Saudi Arabia has raised questions about his ability to continue carrying out his official functions, although the government has insisted he is recovering well.

A Dec. 31 address from Morocco in which the 59-year-old president slurred his speech and appeared unable to move his right arm failed to reassure many Gabonese and was cited as one of the coup plotters’ reasons for acting.

Bongo won re-election in 2016 by fewer than 6,000 votes amid widespread accusations of fraud, sparking deadly clashes between protesters and police during which the parliament was torched.

Reporting By Gerauds Wilfried Obangome; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Kirsten Donovan

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