With just days to go before Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon begin their quest to win the Africa Cup of Nations on home soil, the mood in the host nation remains gloomy.
While the final touches are being put on the four stadiums due to host matches in the January 14-February 5 tournament, the small central African state remains in the midst of a social and political crisis.
On the streets of the capital Libreville, decorated with banners advertising the upcoming continental tournament, workmen have been busy applying a final lick of white paint to the edges of pavements.
In the other host cities of Oyem in the north, Franceville in the south-east and Port-Gentil, the country’s oil capital, final adjustments are still being made around the stadiums.
But the atmosphere on the streets is yet to pick up and the mood around the end-of-year celebrations in Gabon was somewhat moribund at a time when the country is struggling with a severe economic crisis caused by the collapse of the price of oil.
Oil is the main source of revenue in the country of 1.8 million people and with a large number of economic migrants from the likes of Senegal, Burkina Faso and Cameroon.
“Libreville, Port-Gentil, Franceville and Oyem have lost their reputations as energetic, teeming cities of party animals,” stated an opinion piece in the national daily L’Union on Wednesday.
President Ali Bongo Ondimba’s re-election in August, which was validated by the constitutional court, is contested by the opposition and the European Union and led to deadly unrest in the country.
In his New Year message to the nation, Bongo accepted the difficulties currently faced by many in the country.
“Many of our compatriots have been badly affected by the fall-out from the world economic crisis. Many jobs have been lost in the oil industry in particular,” he said.
In recent months there have been continual calls for strike action, notably in public sector jobs, amid demands for social as well as political change.
Close to six months have passed since the presidential election, but opposition leader Jean Ping continues to declare himself the rightful winner and has called on the people of Gabon to resist against “the dictatorship”.
Opposition newspapers have made regular calls to boycott the Cup of Nations, which gets underway when Gabon face debutants Guinea-Bissau on January 14, or to use the tournament as a soundbox for their ideas.
Still traumatised by the post-election violence, some in Gabon are dreading the prospect of incidents around matches, notably in the traditionally rebellious city of Port-Gentil and in Oyem.
The head of state has tried to calm the tensions by reiterating his promise to open political dialogue “the day after the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations ends,” but Ping has so far rejected this.
Bongo described 2016 as “a difficult year due to an election campaign marred by hatred and by a post-election situation that saw tension rise to unacceptable levels for our people.”
A big football fan, Bongo is hoping the Cup of Nations – CAN to give it its acronym in French – can bring a period of calm.
“These should be moments of joy, of coming together and of shared joy,” he insisted.
A Gabon squad led by the prolific Borussia Dortmund striker Aubameyang and also featuring the likes of Juventus midfielder Mario Lemina and Didier Ndong of English Premier League side Sunderland are dreaming of winning the trophy for the first time.
But the locals are yet to be completely won over by the prospect of following The Panthers, who are also in a group with Burkina Faso and illustrious neighbours Cameroon.
“Our minds are not on football,” admitted unemployed Libreville resident Stephane Mba.