AFRICA/GABON - President of the Bishops' Conference: "People can breathe a sigh of relief, but we remain cautious"

Wednesday, 6 March 2024 bishops   coup  

Libreville (Agenzia Fides) - "The leaden cloak that hung over the country seems to have dissolved," says the President of the Bishops' Conference of Gabon, Bishop Jean-Vincent Ondo Eyene of Oyem, in an interview with Fides. Gabon is in a transition period following the August 30 coup that bloodlessly overthrew President Ali Bongo Ondimba, who had ruled Gabon for 14 years, less than an hour after announcing his re-election in the elections of August 26, which the opposition accused had been rigged (see Fides, 30/8/2023).
On September 4, the coup leader, General Brice Oligui Nguema was sworn in as interim President, promising to organize "free, transparent, credible and peaceful elections", but without specifying when (see Fides, 5/9/2023).

How is the Church experiencing this transition phase?
Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the situation in my country. We have experienced difficult moments, including in the Church, with the previous regime in its final phase. It was a tough government. In our prophetic role we have drawn attention to this, especially during last year's elections. During the Mass at the conclusion of our 2023 Plenary Assembly, to which the entire government had been invited, the authorities did not appreciate the compassion of the homily, which was not addressed in particular to them but to all the political parties, calling on them to get out of the vicious circle of holding elections in which we declare a winner and a loser, which in turn calls the people onto the streets, with the police ultimately shooting at demonstrators. And after all this, the dialogue begins for the division of the "cake", i.e. public funds. This approach has brought nothing to the development of the country. The old government did not understand this message of ours, which called on everyone, not just them, but all political parties and the people themselves, to abandon this disastrous approach. After our statement, relations between the State and the Church became complicated; we no longer had the opportunity to meet with the old government or the head of state who had actually planned a meeting with us bishops.
Now we thank the Lord that the population seems content after the events of August 30th; the leaden cloak that weighed on it seems to have disappeared and people can breathe a sigh of relief. But we always remain cautious.

The "division of the cake" you mention mainly concerns the profits from oil production.
Are there any signs of change in this regard?
Gabon needs to bring order to the management of its oil resources, which are a gift from God that must benefit the majority of the population. Until now, there have been families who have had a very high share of the oil revenue. There is an ongoing debate about how to better distribute oil wealth. The new Head of State is trying to do this by initiating new projects to build infrastructure, housing, schools and hospitals.

The Church in Gabon, founded by missionaries, is now led by almost exclusively local priests and bishops, isn't it?
Our church was founded by missionaries, and this year, on November 29th, we celebrate 180 years of evangelization. As you can see, today there are no longer any missionary bishops, only local clergy. In order to become ever more faithful to the mission of the Gospel, we want to strengthen episcopal and pastoral unity. The faith is also manifested in shared facilities such as a major seminary, which we want to realize in the near future.

How is ecumenical and interreligious dialogue lived in Gabon?
Gabon is a peaceful and welcoming country. And when we talk about hospitality, it means that we welcome people of all kinds and from everywhere. So the ecumenical dialogue works very well. For example, in my province, where there are many Protestants, during my pastoral visits I experience that the Protestants say to the Catholics: 'We welcome your bishop'. In families one can find believers moving from one church to another. This means that we meet at festivals. As for the spread of sects, they exist in large cities, but not in the countryside. (L.M.) (Agenzia Fides, 6/3/2024)