Gabon jubilates over News of Unpaid Pensions

Seniors in Gabon’s capital, Libreville, who have been waiting patiently since dawn to inquire about unpaid pensions, are now feeling a renewed sense of hope. Some of them claim to have gone without any payments for years. Following the coup that removed President Ali Bongo Ondimba from power on August 30, General Brice Oligui Nguema, who now leads the transitional government in this oil-rich central African state, has expressed a commitment to revamp the ailing pension system. Shortly after assuming leadership, General Oligui Nguema revealed intentions to overhaul the dysfunctional system, which has long condemned many to a life of poverty.

Leonie Oumtoma, a widow and grandmother, has lost track of the number of times she has stood in line at the Batavia social security office, trying to ascertain when she will begin receiving financial support. She recounts, “I lost my husband in 2017. I submitted my documents in 2018, but I’ve since received nothing. Every time, I leave, I come back… I don’t even know how much I’m going to get.”

The removal of Bongo, aged 64, occurred shortly after he was declared the winner in a presidential election — a result contested as fraudulent by both the opposition and the leaders of the military coup. They have also accused his administration of widespread corruption and poor governance. In a speech before hundreds of business leaders two days later, Oligui vowed to alleviate the suffering of pensioners and the sick. He announced that the private sector would assume immediate responsibility for managing state pension and health funds.

“I’m a widow but I haven’t received a penny of my husband’s pension for two years,” complains 57-year-old trader Henriette Nset. There are thousands like her, assert opposition and civil society groups, who have been sounding the alarm for years. According to World Bank data, one in three people in Africa’s third-richest country, in terms of per-capita GDP, lives below the poverty line. Despite the abundant oil reserves and other natural resources in Gabon, wealth is concentrated among a small elite. Many viewed the coup as a liberation from 55 years of Bongo family rule — 14 of which were under Ali Bongo, who took over after his father Omar’s death in 2009, following nearly 42 years in power.

Life expectancy in Gabon was 66 years old in 2021, according to World Bank figures. Francois Moussavou, 58, who has been awaiting his pension for two years, says, “I’m forced to dip into my savings to meet the needs of my family.” Despite Oligui’s assurances, the initial optimism fades quickly at the Batavia social security office due to a “technical problem” that forces an early closure.

Romaric Ngomo Menie, inspector general of the National Social Security Fund, acknowledges the widespread suffering and emphasizes that the president “wants results quickly because he cares about social protection.” Like others, retired technician Aristide Mouanda, 57, who retired a year ago but has not yet received any pension payments, is hopeful for change under the new regime. Oligui has committed to returning the country to civilian rule through elections after a transitional period but has not specified a date. He has also established a broad transitional government, engaged with key figures, and pledged assistance to the country’s most impoverished. However, strikes by workers who have not been paid for months suggest that the patience of the Gabonese people may wane rapidly.

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