The economy of Gabon suffered a difficult contraction following a fall in the price of oil in 2015 but following a severe reform programme Regis Immongault feels the country is back on its feet. He spoke to African Business on topics ranging from Gabon's relationships with foreign companies, his country's recent experience with the IMF and the pros and cons of being a part of the CFA franc zone.
Before taking on this role you were at the Ministry for Economy. What role would you say diplomacy plays in economic development?
Diplomacy has an essential role to play in promoting economic development. The head of state sent me to this department in view of my background as an economist, to try to implement economic diplomacy, and this is an essential component of our [foreign] strategy. Today, our country has a new economic vision, a new paradigm, which is intended to strengthen inclusiveness in terms of economic development.
There have been disputes with French groups such as Veolia and Total. Are these disputes purely commercial or a strategic shift away from traditional partners?
There is no tension between France and Gabon. But what France must understand is that Gabon is a country that will defend its interests, in the same way that France does. Veolia had a concession signed by the state of Gabon. For quite a while, the Gabonese government reported its concerns regarding the concession. It called for greater efforts to be made with regards the management of the concession, but these were not adequately dealt with. In the circumstances, Gabon chose to terminate the agreement. With Total it's simple. Total is an oil company that is subject to tax audits. The tax authorities audited Total and a number of facts emerged, and that is what the discussion was all about. Of course, at some point there has to be a time for arbitration to revise downwards the sum being demanded. That is what has been done in the case of Total.
From the point of view of transparency, respect for the rule of law and contracts is everything currently in order in Gabon?
It is an ongoing commitment. What drives us is to do things that are in the interests of our country and that means creating an investment and business climate that is fair and attractive to all. We cannot treat any company more favourably than another and vice versa.
You have a public-private partnership with the Singapore-based Olam Group. They are overseeing the Gabon Special Economic Zone, they...