Now that Egypt's Mubarak is out, could Gabon's Bongo be next?

The revolutionary protests in Tunisia and Egypt weren't supposed to spread south to sub-Saharan Africa. But Gabonese protesters are aiming to oust President Ali Bongo.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak left office yesterday amid a flood of protests. Gabon's Ali Bongo may be the next Mubarak.

The protests that are reshaping the Arab world weren't supposed to spread south to sub-Saharan Africa. But for weeks, while scenes of Egyptians overtaking their capital have mesmerized global TV audiences -- and brought the world's most recognized names in TV news to Cairo -- Gabonese protesters have been facing death and imprisonment in a series of anti-repression demonstrations consciously modeled off the Tunisian example.

The former French colony has been run for 34 years, with open support from France, by the Bongo family -- first by Omar Bongo, and then by his son, Ali. In the family's first act, Bongo Sr. racked up a rap sheet with Amnesty International that includes political murders and tortures of opposition leaders. The family managed to survive the winds of democratization that swept Africa in the early 1990s, before Bongo Sr. died in 2009, passing power to his son, Ali.

IN PICTURES: Exclusive Monitor photos of Egypt's turmoil

In the meantime, the family has channeled at least $100 million of state money into US banks alone, according to an investigation by the US senate. To make a point, Bongo Jr.'s wife was at one point renting a $25,000 a house from the rapper then known as Puff Daddy.

Critics say the Bongos got away with these sort of antics, which have cost so many autocrats their Western backing because of one thing only: Oil. The country used to pump 370,000 barrels a day of the stuff, but finds its reserves running drier by the week. No matter. The damage has already been done. Petrol has made this corner of the continent an African banana republic -- except that commercial farmers no longer bother to grow bananas in what would be great soil for the crop, thanks the the limits of an oil-inflated currency (see, dutch disease).

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Gabon's people are poor -- two-dollars-a-day poor -- but the macroeconomics are bizzare. On purchasing power, the country has roughly the same size economy per capita as Argentina.

That's the background against which students find themselves burning tires in support of an opposition candidate hiding out in the local United Nations Development Programme office. Andre Mba Obame, who claims to have won the country's presidential vote in August 2009, set up a shadow government on the same morning as the Egyptian protests kicked off.

That inspired President Bongo to shut down TV stations and allegedly kidnap members of the opposition. The UN is accusing Gabon's police of invading and beating students within the university.

Students have led the protests, so far. Though initial protests were overwhelmingly staffed by opposition loyalists, "the unrest appears to be developing into a wider social conflict," writes blogger and international law researcher Julie Owono.

And yet, so little coverage. A Google news search for "Gabon" comes up with a soccer score: Algeria - 2, Gabon, 2.

IN PICTURES: Exclusive Monitor photos of Egypt's turmoil

--- The original version misstated the date of the August 2009 vote.

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