President Ali Bongo has been hospitalised for more than three weeks in Saudi Arabia, and his absence could trigger significant changes in the tiny nation.

President of Gabon Ali Bongo Ondimba attends a round table event at an EU Africa summit in Abidjan, Ivory Coast on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017.
President of Gabon Ali Bongo Ondimba attends a round table event at an EU Africa summit in Abidjan, Ivory Coast on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. (AP)

The Gabonese constitutional court last Wednesday ruled that Vice President Pierre Claver Maganga Moussavou will chair the cabinet due to the unexpected absence of President Ali Bongo, triggering rumours that it will mark the end of the 50-year Bongo dynasty in the small country on the west coast of Central Africa. 

After nearly three weeks of an information blackout, the government announced that President Bongo is hospitalised at the King Faisal Hospital in Saudi Arabia on the 24th of October. 

Bongo has not appeared in public since and the reason for his hospitalisation remains unclear. Gabonese officials said the president was suffering from fatigue in a bid to shut down claims that he had suffered a stroke. No date has been given by local officials for Bongo’s return. 

The African Union (AU), to prevent any possible disorder in the country, warned Gabon to respect constitutional order. 

According to the statement released by AU Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat, the commission "will deploy a fact-finding mission to Libreville in the shortest delay." 

Mahamat urged all who had influence in Gabon to "show the necessary collective leadership during this time in order to preserve unity, peace and stability in the country."

The uncertainty as to when or if Bongo will come back to the capital Libreville has created a power vacuum that could ignite disorder in a country that was already hit by violence in 2016. 

Riots across the country erupted after the disputed results of the presidential election were announced in 2016. The vote extended Bongo’s rule by giving him another seven years in power and the opposition candidate Jean Ping accused the government of rigging the election. 

Fifty-year dynasty

President Bongo came to power in 2009 after the death of his father, Omar Bongo, who ruled the oil-rich nation for 41 years. 

Although Omar Bongo has been praised by many Gabonese as the father of the nation, international investigations have shed light on massive corruption, the use of oil profits for personal benefits and lavish properties in many European and American cities. 

According to the 2010 report by Spanish newspaper El Pais, Omar Bongo embezzled public funds and funnelled them to French political parties, including in support of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy. 

Ping was once a close ally of the former president Bongo, and he worked with his son for many years. But in 2014 Ping rose to oppose the Bongo rule. 

"Gabon is a pure and simple dictatorship in the hands of a family, a clan," he told French daily Le Monde at the time.

The tiny nation, with a population of fewer than two million people, plays a significant role in the regional economy by pumping 200,000 barrels of oil a day. 

Although the country has one of Africa’s highest incomes per capita, at more than $7,000, about a third of the population lives below the poverty line.