LIBREVILLE (Reuters) - Gabon wants to lure investors into its mining, manufacturing and tourism sectors as it tries to reduce its dependence on oil exports and court capital from countries other than former colonial master France.
The Central African country relies heavily on oil exports but President Ali Bongo says the economy cannot remain reliant on petroleum if it wants to achieve its goal of becoming an emerging economic power by 2025.
In the humid capital Libreville, a clean palm-lined coastal road runs parallel to a busy Atlantic shipping lane. Unlike most African capitals, stray animals and beggars are almost entirely absent. Local cafes sell baguettes and French patisseries in a testament to the lasting French influence.
The country is sub-Saharan Africa’s fifth largest oil producer and pumps around 250,000 barrels per day, accounting for around 80 percent of exports. Others include timber and manganese.
“If we want to have a chance of reaching that goal we have to go through manufacturing,” Bongo said in a rare interview with Reuters and the Guardian.
“Gabon is open for business and there are many opportunities especially now that we want to start processing from forestry, mining and industrial projects,” he said.
Under Bongo, a new policy was introduced that outlaws exports of raw timber. At the same time, a second refinery to process 50,000 barrels a day and convert a portion of the country’s oil to finished products should be completed by 2016.
Gabon, which the government expects to grow by 7.8 percent in 2014 compared with 6.1 percent in 2013, also hopes that it will be an investment hub for the region and is investing in road infrastructure to expand links to neighbouring countries such as Cameroon and Congo Republic.
“From Gabon you can reach out in the region. You have access to all different markets. We are not talking about just Gabon but about 100 million people that you have access to from Gabon,” he said on the sidelines of The New York Forum.
The forum is an investment conference hosted by the government and organised by strategic consulting firm Richard Attias & Associates.
Bongo noted that security needed to improve to further regional integration and said he would discuss the issue with U.S. President Barack Obama at a meeting in August.
Bongo also said he hoped to attract tourists to Gabon’s dense rainforests which are home to gorillas, chimpanzees and one of Africa’s largest elephant populations.
While French companies are still welcome in the country, he said they would receive no special treatment. “We have an old relationship with the French. Now it’s equal treatment for all investors. The laws are the same,” he said.
Bongo was elected president in 2009 after the death of his father Omar Bongo, who became president in 1967 and ruled for 41 years.
Asked about his priorities until 2016 when his mandate ends he said that he would like to accelerate projects focused on finishing projects to extend road infrastructure and to honour a pledge to create 5,000 new housing units a year.
About a third of Gabon’s population of 1.5 million still live in poverty but the World Bank categorises it as an upper middle income country, alongside countries like Turkey and South Africa, with a gross national income per capita of over $10,000.
Opponents contested the result of the 2009 presidential election and the main opposition National Union party was later forcibly dissolved by the government. Bongo said he rejected accusations from his critics that Gabon is not a true democracy.
“Democracy is not an issue here. Most Gabonese people will tell you it is not an issue,” he said. “Of course if you are a member of the opposition you will always say that but I haven’t yet imprisoned one opposition leader for insulting me.”
Asked how long he was likely to remain president, the 55-year-old said it would depend on voters. “One thing is sure I won’t be there as long as my father.”
Additional reporting by Jean Rovys Dabany; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky