Gabon junta appoints former opposition leader as interim PM

Gabon junta appoints former opposition leader as interim PM

By Gerauds Wilfried Obangome

LIBREVILLE (Reuters) - Gabon's ruling junta which seized power in a coup last week appointed a former opposition leader, Raymond Ndong Sima, as prime minister of its transitional government on Thursday.

Sima, a 68-year-old economist, was an outspoken critic of President Ali Bongo, who was ousted by military officers on Aug. 30. He served as Bongo's prime minister from 2012 to 2014, then resigned and ran against him for president in 2016 and again as part of an opposition coalition this year.

Bongo, in power since 2009, had succeeded his father Omar Bongo, who ruled the Central African oil producer for 42 years. The family's dynastic rule had created widespread discontent, with critics saying the Bongos did little to share Gabon's wealth with its 2.3 million people.

Bongo had been under house arrest after the coup, but the junta said on Wednesday that he was now free and could travel abroad for medical checks if he wished.

The coup was greeted with scenes of jubilation in the capital Libreville and the junta moved quickly to consolidate power, swearing in General Brice Oligui Nguema as interim president on Monday.

Army officers read a decree on state television on Thursday announcing that Sima had been named PM.

The coup in Gabon was the eighth in three years in West and Central Africa, though it has been playing out very differently from the most recent other army takeover, in Niger.

Unlike Niger, Gabon has not seen an outpouring of anti-French, pro-Russian sentiment, and the generals in charge in Libreville have appeared open to dialogue with international organisations which their counterparts in Niamey have shunned.

Nguema has promised economic reforms and said he will organise free and fair elections, though he has not said when.

Abdou Abarry, Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary General in Central Africa, met Nguema in Libreville on Wednesday and told him that the United Nations would assist the country as it made a fresh start.

"Once we know the roadmap, the timetable, once a government will have been appointed, our different agencies will make the necessary contacts and continue to support Gabon," he said after the meeting, in remarks broadcast on Gabon 24 TV.

A senior government official taking part in discussions within the Central African regional bloc ECCAS told Reuters they had proposed a 12-month transition period to Gabonese authorities.

"We are awaiting their response," the source said.

ECCAS suspended Gabon on Monday but sent the president of Central African Republic, Faustin-Archange Touadera, as its representative to meet Nguema.

Touadera told reporters he had also met Ali Bongo, with Nguema's permission. He did not disclose any details about Bongo's circumstances or state of mind, saying only that the meeting had been fruitful.

(Reporting by Gerauds Wilfried Obangome; Additional reporting by Sonia Rolley; Writing by Anait Miridzhanian and Nellie Peyton; Editing by Estelle Shirbon, William Maclean, Alexandra Hudson and Daniel Wallis)