Ten months after his stroke, President Ali Bongo Ondimba attended Saturday's military parade for the National Day, a rare public appearance that Gabonese people were waiting to judge for themselves if he can still run the country, contrary to what is claimed its opponents.
Standing in a command-car of the army, right as an i, dark suit and dark glasses, the head of state arrived in the middle of the morning in front of the official platform on the main avenue of the seafront of Libreville, for the beginning of the parade. He leaned on a long cane to walk to the foot of the stand and, to the applause of the personalities present, he climbed the stairs alone to his chair, where he sat next to his wife Sylvia Bongo, found AFP journalists.
"We want to see it with our own eyes," hammered Jean, a police officer in Libreville, before the parade.
Early Saturday morning, many people flocked to the waterfront, trying to make their way through many security gates. The president greeted hands from his car, some lucky after the parade. "There are people who said he was sick, but he was able to greet us," said Mama Youssouf, a young onlooker.
Some of the opposition had called on its supporters to see whether the president, who succeeded his father Omar Bongo ten years ago, was still able to lead this oil country with less than two million souls, to the faltering economy.
Since his stroke in October 2018 in Saudi Arabia, the head of state, now 60 years old, has abandoned mud baths and press conferences. He took advantage Saturday of the 59th anniversary of independence to make a brief return in public.
On Friday already, he appeared in front of the press for a tribute ceremony to the first Gabonese president, Leon Mba. For the first time since his return home in late March, after a long convalescence in Morocco, he was filmed and photographed by the international press, outside the presidential palace, but in front of a parterre of personalities handpicked.
Apart from succinct speeches recorded and broadcast on television, including the last Friday evening, and a few words spoken on his return from Morocco, the Gabonese have still not had the opportunity to hear their president.
"It is this uncertainty that makes the rumor swell," says Florence Bernault, historian at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris and specialist in Gabon.
– Medical tests? –
The presidency had, until Saturday, preferred to saturate the social networks of images taken by him, Mr. Bongo in his office, welcoming a pleiade of African heads of state who have been successive Libreville in recent weeks. Official photographs and videos of the "boss", as it is called in Libreville, are published almost daily. Without sound.
"We were used to seeing him make speeches," said AFP political analyst André Wilson Ndombet. According to him, this official and silent communication of a formerly "prolix" head of the state feeds the doubt.
Since the stroke, rumors even suggesting that the president was no longer alive had gained momentum, including by union officials.
For some less radical detractors who claim that the president passes a medical examination, the parade on Saturday does not necessarily change the deal. "I think that the medical examination is the most effective element to establish whether a person is fit to perform his duties," said lawyer Angels Kevin Nzigou, one of the ten personalities to have signed a "Call to Action" claiming these tests in justice.
In recent weeks, the opposition's interrogations have been gaining momentum. The president's family also made headlines.
Conquered by Jean-Boniface Assele, Ali's uncle and former close friend of Omar Bongo, the maternal family had posted in front of his residence demanding to see him, criticizing his close entourage.
A boon for opposition newspapers, who accuse the first circle of manipulating it.
For Florence Bernault, these rumors owe their survival to the "fear of forgery" Gabonese, who still have not digested the victory of Ali Bongo in the 2016 elections, challenged by the opposition and part of civil society. "It's a president with very weak legitimacy," she says.