(Ecofin Agency) - In recent months, the government of Gabon has been bringing in some young blood. Noureddin Bongo Valentin, a youth not more than 30 years, has been appointed as the General Coordinator of Presidential Affairs. A man who shines by his performances, he applies to public management some private management techniques: reporting, auditing, return on investment. "I belong to a generation to whom efficiency is crucial," he said.
Exclusive interview with the “GCPA”.
Ecofin Agency: What does the position of General Coordinator of Presidential Affairs in Gabon entail? Some believe this title is somewhat that of vice-president...
Noureddin Bongo Valentin: This position feeds many fantasies (laughs). Wrongly so. In truth, the reality is much more prosaic. The General Coordinator of Presidential Affairs is an executor who serves the head of state. According to the title’s attributes, the coordinator has "the task of dealing with any matter concerning the President of the Republic."
“This position feeds many fantasies (laughs)”
Concretely, the "GCPA" assists the President in conducting his missions, ensures that his directives are properly executed, and follows up on them. It is therefore a very technical position, not a political one. I should add that this is not something new in Gabon. We have had it in the past.
EA: You are bearing this heavy responsibility on your shoulders, even though you are not 30 years old yet. How does your age affect your management style and your approach to politics?
NBV: While experience is a valuable asset for handling public affairs, youthfulness also is. All the more so in our rapidly changing world where technology is developing at a very fast pace. Regarding governance, I belong to a generation to whom efficiency is crucial. It’s not about “doing for the sake of doing” but about doing to change things, positively and rapidly. This is what power should be used for. Concerning politics, my generation is particularly sensitive to certain subjects: The environment, of course, but also training (which will be a determining factor in the world to come), innovation, the fight against inequalities (which requires the development of employment), and debt - which is not bad in itself, as long as it doesn’t hinder the future.
EA: According to the IMF, as of the end of September 2020, Gabon had mobilized $300 million to fight Covid-19. Was this done efficiently?
NBV: Those who have ambition for their country, and its people, always want to do better. Truly, it appears that Gabon set itself apart when faced with this pandemic. In Africa, we are one of the countries that tested a large number of the population and where the rate of mortality due to the virus is the lowest.
International institutions, which are members of the task force set up by the President of the Republic and which I had the honor to lead, are unanimous on this matter, starting with the WHO and the United Nations. At the request of the President of the Republic, Ali Bongo Ondimba, a substantial budget was disbursed to provide a strong response in the health and social sectors. But the most important - and this is something we owe the Head of State - was anticipation. We always tried to be one step ahead of the epidemic.
EA: In other parts of the world, the second wave of cases has been recorded, but Gabon is still below the peaks of the June-July 2020 period. With the hindsight you now have, what response should we expect? A strong one just like in 2020 or a more moderate response?
NBV: The President's strategy has not changed since the crisis began. First, we anticipate. Prevention is better than cure. Secondly, we adapt our response to the seriousness of the epidemic. Thirdly, we allocate all the needed resources, both in terms of budget and health. This strategy, which proved effective during the first wave last March, is currently being used to deal with the second wave. To answer your question, the response during this second wave will be as strong as necessary but always proportionate depending on how serious the situation is.
EA: This second wave comes at a time when President Ali Bongo Ondimba has announced a vast plan to revive the national economy. What should the Gabonese people expect in the coming days, especially those whose activities were interrupted, or shut down even, because of the Covid-19?
NBV: The 2021-2023 Transformation Acceleration Plan is a turning point in the implementation of the Emerging Gabon Strategic Plan, launched in 2009 by the President at the beginning of his first term. Although the sectors that should constitute the new pillars of our economy, first, the forestry-wood sector and agribusiness, have recorded a constant, double-digit growth over the past 10 years, they still do not significantly contribute to our GDP and this exposes us to the volatility of global prices of oil and mining products.
“We are on the right track. We just need to go farther, faster”
We are, therefore, going to introduce radical reforms to consolidate our upstream forestry; to have fewer operators, but better-capitalized ones, who respect national rules and international certifications, and significantly increase the annual volume of wood exploitable by our secondary and tertiary industrial fabric. We also intend to start forest plantations with fast-growing wood species, in areas with little or no natural woodland, always to significantly increase our annual wood production without toppling the balanced biodiversity of our natural forests. The President of the Republic takes today, decisions that will impact our compatriots in the future. He acts as a true Head of State.
Regarding measures to mitigate the socio-economic impacts induced by the second wave of COVID-19, we stand ready to reactivate levers used in the first wave, such as a moratorium on certain taxes, a moratorium on rents for lower-income households, temporary free water and electricity for low-income households, and free urban public transport.
EA: You recently audited Gabon's domestic debt, something that was done in neighboring countries, Cameroon for example. What were the results of this initiative? Beyond cutting on costs, how did it affect the management of public procurement in the country?
NBV: In times of crisis, it is imperative to manage the State's finances as best as possible. That is why last June, President Ali Bongo Ondimba ordered the creation of a task force to audit the country's entire domestic debt. The result is clear. Of the 1,030 billion CFA francs of domestic debt audited, 623 billion were found to be fictitious, which is 62% of the total. So much money that wasn't used to cover our investment or social expenditures.
Of course, based on lessons learned and instructions given by the Head of State, a new architecture was put in place to ensure the proper use of public funds, by consolidating the General Directorate of Public Procurement and setting up the National Verification and Audit Authority. Public procurement procedures have been tightened and transparency has been improved at all stages.
EA: Besides ensuring transparency and regularity in public procurement, the President of the Republic has expressed his desire to reduce the country's foreign debt below 70% of gross domestic product. What strategy will be put in place to achieve this?
NBV: The total public debt, which is domestic plus foreign debt, now amounts to 70% of our GDP. First of all, I would like to deplore the political instrumentalization - I would even say politicization - that is taking place in this area. This is too serious a subject, too engaging to give rise to such vile polemics. In itself, debt is not bad, especially when it is used to invest; and the issue of its sustainability is more complex than the simplistic presentation that some pseudo-experts sum it up to.
Having said this, the objective set by the President is clear: we must return to a sustainable level of public debt. Currently, we spend almost 45% of our annual resources to repay our debts. This is way too much! To change this, we must first tackle the imbalance in our public finances. This is the first lever to pull. The debt cycle is fuelled mainly by the fact that we currently spend more than we have. As a result, we have to borrow to finance this deficit, and this leads to a vicious circle. The 2021-2023 Transformation Acceleration Plan, adopted at the beginning of the year, provides for rigorous measures to improve the collection of public revenues, to control certain expenditures such as the wage bill of government employees, debt service with payment rescheduling, and the reduction or elimination of subsidies granted to certain public agencies that have not proven their efficiency or that must learn to operate independently.
The second lever is to accelerate our growth. If we succeed in reforming our high-potential sectors, which can make a powerful contribution to the diversification of our economy, our debt-to-GDP ratio will automatically fall. The best way to reduce debt is to have solid growth that generates more tax revenues. Hence the need to intensify the policy of economic diversification, promote the private sector, and attract investments.
Finally, for the third lever we need to pull, we haven't completely ruled out the option of selling some assets to repay our debt. Gabon has certain dormant assets that are undervalued. I am thinking in particular of the carbon credits that we could issue and sell to companies or states that pollute and wish to offset their environmental impact. Gabon has signed a pioneering financial agreement with Norway in this regard. We are also studying other possibilities for partnerships and the use of these carbon credits, which could be a smart way for us to mobilize financial resources while remaining committed to the sustainable development of our ecosystems and the preservation of our biodiversity. In this area, Gabon should make significant progress by 2021.
EA: Every day, you work to improve public spending. But in public opinion, and although the Gabonese justice system has dismissed a civil society complaint accusing you of corruption and money laundering, some people still think that you take advantage of your position to enrich yourself and your relatives…
NBV: If the court dismissed the complaint you are talking about, it is for an important reason: none of the complainants, all of whom are activists from the most radical wing of the opposition, were able to produce any evidence to support their allegations. It was pure defamation. That's what this is all about: smearing someone's reputation to destabilize them. As Francis Bacon used to say, "Slander, slander, there will always be something left."
But I am not a man who gets moved so easily. I don't care about rumors. I focus on serving Gabon alongside the President of the Republic. I do not have time to waste on such pettiness.
EA: Do you understand the concerns of those who fear the third generation of Bongos taking over the country?
NBV: I am proud of my name and I know that the Gabonese people will judge me based on my results and the major improvements in their daily life, not by my surname which some, for lack of any other serious argument, bring up systematically.
To tell you the truth, I believe "those" people you are referring to are politicians, commentators in the media, or activists on social networks. They represent a tiny minority. The overwhelming majority of Gabonese people get up in the morning thinking about jobs, purchasing power, water, electricity, education, health, transport, housing... These are the issues that matter to me. I don't care about the rest. It's just idle chatter.
EA: Given the ambitions some attribute to you, you are the target of frequent accusations. After being accused of illicit enrichment, you have recently been questioned because of your nationality. Some people claim that you are not Gabonese.
NBV: The proliferation of "fake news" is a scourge that affects every country in the world and it, unfortunately, spares no one. This phenomenon is exacerbated by social networks which, far from their original ambition, have partly become platforms relaying hatred and lies. The repetition of untruths today leads Internet users to believe almost religiously what is said. However, this false news distilled in the virtual world sometimes has dramatic impacts in real life. In January 2020, two of our compatriots died, lynched by the crowd, because of rumors, imaginary, of a series of child abductions.
We must learn to stop these abuses. This is why, as far as I am concerned, I make it a point of honor to file a complaint against the authors of fanciful and false accusations. Just as justice has proven me right in the case of false accusations of illicit enrichment, it will prove me right concerning the lies about my nationality. This maneuver does not fool anyone. It is very frequently used by political opponents, in Africa, like elsewhere in the world. Even Barack Obama was a victim of it.
EA: You were onboard Olam's management, a company that now occupies a strategic position for Gabon's development. What is your relationship with your former employer? How do you balance your new relationship? In particular, how do you avoid potential conflicts of interest?
NBV: Olam is a major player in Gabon. It is the country's largest private employer and its contribution to the diversification of the economy is well established. I have maintained excellent relations with the company's management, in particular with Gagan Gupta, who is a great world-class executive and for whom I have great respect.
“The experience I acquired in the private sector is very useful to me, it helps me operate in the public sector more efficiently”
That said, that part of my life is behind me. Therefore, there is no possible conflict of interest to answer your question. From now on, I am entirely dedicated to the State. The only interests I defend are those of Gabon and the Gabonese people. I have had the opportunity to demonstrate this on numerous occasions over the past year.
The experience I acquired in the private sector is very useful to me, it helps me operate in the public sector more efficiently. In my new position, I promote some business practices, such as auditing, return on investment, reporting, evaluation, etc.
EA: Gabon wants to leverage the African Continental Free Trade Area to boost its exports to Africa and improve its trade balance. In which sectors do you think Gabon can be competitive in terms of exports?
NBV: We heavily rely on our wood industry. Gabon is already the leading exporter of plywood in Africa. Presently, 80% of Gabon's wood industry is engaged in primary processing, i.e. cutting up logs, with little added value. Our ambition is to have a critical mass of secondary and tertiary processing factories, to eventually become the leading producer of tropical wood furniture in Africa. However, our domestic market will not be able to absorb such an offer; this is why the AfTCA is so important, it'll give us access to more than one billion consumers without tariff barriers. To achieve this, we need to improve our logistics platform and take full advantage of this potential.
We also have ambitions in the agro-industry, particularly in palm oil derivatives such as edible oil or biofuels, as well as in the coffee-cocoa sector where we hope to sell finished products internationally, and also in cassava derivatives.
EA: The ECOWAS is taking steps to adopt a new currency and free itself of the CFA Franc. Do you think Central Africa should follow the same path?
NBV: The Heads of State of the CEMAC zone have mandated the CEMAC Commission and the Bank of Central African States (BEAC) to conduct a study on the areas of reform in the management of our common currency. Initial interim conclusions have been issued, which should be the subject of further discussions.
Among the additional elements to be considered is the process of institutional rapprochement between CEMAC and ECCAS, initiated by Head of State Ali Bongo Ondimba when he was the president of ECCAS.
Strengthening economic integration with countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Rwanda should set monetary integration as a future anchor. However, it is important to emphasize the prerequisites for such integration, and above all the economic logic of the new grouping, but also the economic, monetary, and geopolitical relations of this economic area with the rest of the world, as well as the measures of solidarity that we are prepared to take among ourselves. All of this is to say that we must think far beyond the link between Central Africa and France. We must build a 21st-century currency, and focusing on twentieth-century struggles can make us lose sight of the real issues we face.
EA: The diversification of the economy and the industrialization of the country are very present in the public discourse. What are your objectives in this area?
NBV: Let me put it in the words of President Ali Bongo Ondimba, who has a great way of illustrating this ambition: "By 2030, green gold must replace black gold." To have a more inclusive, and more sustainable growth, Gabon must develop certain parts of its economy more; create more added value locally through its industry, its agriculture, so that Gabon produces more of what it consumes. But also its services, whether in finance, telecommunications or tourism.
“It’s not about “doing for the sake of doing” but about doing, to change things, positively and rapidly.”
Despite the laudable efforts made in the past 10 years, our country's economic health remains far too exposed to global fluctuations in commodity prices. We need our growth to be more endogenous. This is the path we are on, as shown by the development of our timber sector. Unquestionably, we are on the right track. We just need to go farther, faster.
EA: Gabon is considered a continental leader in the fight against global warming. In concrete terms, how does the country intend to turn the green economy into a growth driver and, perhaps, eventually a substitute for the extraction of raw materials? Let me remind you that oil still accounts for nearly 80% of the country's budgetary revenues.
While it is true that oil still accounts for nearly 80% of Gabon's budgetary revenues, let me point out that the weight of the oil sector in the GDP has fallen from 42.2% in 2010 to 32.7% in 2019.
That said, you are right to note that Gabon is the spearhead in Africa in the fight against global warming. It is no coincidence that our country was chosen to lead the group of African negotiators for the next COP 26 in Glasgow in November, or that the President of this COP, Mr. Alok Sharma, was in Libreville at the end of January.
Gabon is determined to transform its economic model to make it more sustainable and profitable. Timber is a perfect example. This industry, which continues to grow in size and added value, operates in respect of the strictest international environmental standards. Hence, the wood harvested today can be harvested again in the years to come, and so on.
As for other industries, particularly oil and mining, they must progressively comply with rules that are more protective of nature.
This is a global trend to which Gabon fully adheres. In the 21st century, reconciling the economy and the environment is not an option. It is an obligation. It is not only for the sake of our country's future but also our continent's and our entire planet's.
Interview by Idriss Linge