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Jean Ping, former top diplomat out to topple Gabon dynasty

25 August 2016, 07:51

Libreville - Gabon's leading presidential challenger Jean Ping is a career diplomat determined to wrest power from the Bongo dynasty in Saturday's election after serving the family for two decades.

Foreign Minister of the small oil-rich nation from the late 1990s until being elected to the high-profile post of chair of the African Union (AU) Commission in 2008, he is among a few Gabonese figures to be well-known internationally.

The Paris university graduate was one of late president Omar Bongo's closest and longest-serving ministers, holding a succession of prestigious posts before turning against President Ali Bongo who stepped in after his father's death in 2009.

Dubbing the regime that has run the nation on the Equator "a pure and simple dictatorship", Ping turned on Bongo junior in 2014 and now hopes to stop him winning a second seven-year term.

Launching his campaign in the central town of Lambarene in mid-August, the 73-year-old pledged that if elected he would ensure Gabon would be "sheltered from need and fear".

The half-Chinese veteran of Gabonese politics has since secured the backing of other opposition heavyweights in a concerted bid to end the reign of the powerful Bongo clan.

Former Prime Minister Casimir Oye Mba and Guy Nzouba Ndama, who was a long-serving parliamentary speaker, have both agreed to back Ping for president, as has former intelligence chief Leon Paul Ngoulakia, also a first cousin to Bongo.

"I am here because you decided that we needed a single candidate to end this dictatorship that we've been living through," said Ngoulakia.

None of the other 10 candidates approved by the electoral commission have the stature of the old servants of the regime, whose show of unity is a first in a nation where the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) has an entrenched power-base.

Government spokesperson, Alain-Claude Billie By Nze however had denounced the "unnatural alliance", calling it "horse trading whose only aim is to share out privilege and power".

'Like the Titanic'

Fast-talking and vocal Ping, who made a host of friends during his AU stint, told the French daily Le Monde in March that "Gabon is a pure and simple dictatorship in the hands of a family, a clan."

"Gabon is like the Titanic, heading for an iceberg and the band is playing on. And that iceberg, if nothing is done, is civil war."

Bongo-friendly media have repeatedly focused on reports that Ping's son took commissions from a Chinese group bidding for public works contracts.

An extrovert equally at ease in English and French, Ping married Omar Bongo's eldest daughter, Pascaline, herself a senior politician. The couple had two children.

He later married an Ivorian woman, and is today a father of eight.

Before embarking on a ministerial career, Ping earned a doctorate in economics from France's Sorbonne University and was an international civil servant for the Paris-based UNESCO.

During his AU tenure, he built strong ties with Turkey, India and most notably China, which financed the $200 million (160 million euros) construction of the new AU headquarters in Addis Ababa.

"While he's very weak at building cohesion within Africa itself, he does seem to have been much more effective than previous African leaders at building these key alliances externally," said Phil Clark, politics professor at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (OSSA).



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