The infrastructure program is aggressive, envisioning projects totaling $25 billion from public and private sources by 2025.
Gabon has turned to Bechtel Civil for help with its infrastructure push, enlisting the engineering and construction giant to help draw up a master plan and carry it out.
Gabon's Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Moussa-Adamo, and Bechtel's general manager for civil infrastructure, Walker Kimball, recently sat down with me and Raj Kumar, president and editor-in-chief of Devex, a Washington-based company that provides international-development data and news, to discuss the infrastructure program and other topics.
In the joint interview—on Oct. 14 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank—Moussa-Adamo and Kimball noted that the impetus for the program goes back several years, when Ali Bongo Ondimba, Gabon's president since 2009, outlined a plan for "Le Gabon émergent."
His aim is to diversify the country’s economy away from an overdependence on extractive industries, particularly oil and gas and mining. The initiative seeks to emphasize industrial activities, services industries and a "Green Gabon."
The "foundational document" for Bechtel's involvement in Gabon, Kimball says, was a national infrastructure master plan that includes about $25 billion in public and private investment by 2025. Kimball acknowledges, “That’s ambitious."
Gabon hired Bechtel in 2010 to develop and implement the plan, which was produced in 2011.
So far, Kimball says an estimated $2 billion worth of projects have been let, counting public-sector dollars only. Some of that work is complete—for example, since 2010 about 500 km of roads have been improved.
I asked whether plans include any signature projects. Moussa-Adamo pointed to a planned new airport in the suburbs of the capital city, Libreville, now in the feasibility-study stage. He says, “Once we have that new airport, we think that Gabon can be the hub of west and central Africa.”
Also on the list is Port Mole, a waterfront development near Libreville that would be based on planning concepts that aim to avoid sprawl. It is to include a technology center, marina, housing and educational facilities.
Health care is also on the agenda. Moussa-Adamo notes that there are plans for five new hospitals, including one focusing on oncology and another concentrating on children’s and women’s care. A new regional hospital was completed last year and he says another hospital is nearly finished.
Kimball says that so far Gabonese firms have won about 50% of the infrastructure contracts and 45% of the the contract dollars.
He adds, “And we’ve seen a host of international players.” They include firms from Spain, France and Turkey. In addition, China Harbour Engineering was awarded a contract to reclaim 40 hectares of land for the Port Mole project.
Moussa-Adamo says that the international interest "has contributed to changing the perception that Gabon was [a] French backyard. So now its market is open to everybody.” Gabon achieved independence from France in 1960.
Another emphasis of the president's initiative, Moussa-Adamo says, is to address corruption. The Worldwide Governance Indicators database placed Gabon in the 36th percentile in 2013 in the control-of-corruption category. That's up from the 13th percentile in 2008, but below its 40th percentile level in 2003.
By comparison, nearby Cameroon ranked in the 9th percentile and Equatorial Guinea was in the zero percentile in corruption control in 2013. The U.S. stood in the 85th percentile.
Devex’s Kumar asked whether Gabon is getting any financial assistance from multilateral banks. Moussa-Adamo said, “We suffer from the fact that Gabon is considered a rich country." He says that view has been “a big, big impediment. We need that help. We don’t get it.”
Kimball says that one of the major improvements in the infrastructure area in Gabon is that "projects get finished now."
He notes, "Sometimes they take longer. There are unexpected challenges like in every infrastructure endeavor everywhere in the world." But he adds, "The legacy of half-completed, unfinished projects is over."
Moussa-Adamo says his message to engineering firms and contractors is, "We're open for business."