Gabon’s sole train a lifeline for its economy

Gabonese gather in 1983 during the inauguration of the second phase of Transgabonais project. Today, about 320,000 people travel on the train per year. (AFP)
Updated 16 September 2019

Gabon’s sole train a lifeline for its economy

FRANCEVILLE: The sky turns from indigo to ebony as the tropical night falls, and the train patiently thrusts through the jungle toward its destination, still hundreds of km away.

The trek has the hallmarks of one of the world’s Great Forgotten Train Journeys — a voyage through 648 km of lush equatorial forest.

The train is the brainchild of Gabon’s former President Omar Bongo who ruled for 42 years until his death in 2009.

In the 1970s, he dreamed of linking the central African state’s resource-rich interior to the Atlantic coast — and he saw it through, despite being rebuffed by the World Bank, which refused to fund it on the grounds that it was not economically viable.

Today, the “Bongo Train,” as it is affectionately known, remains the country’s sole railway line, linking 23 stations from the coastal capital Libreville to distant Franceville, the country’s third most populous city.

“The Transgabonais binds Gabonese society,” declares Christian Antchouet Roux, the stationmaster at Franceville.

About 320,000 people take the train every year, a sign of its affordability for the average Gabonese.

Ticket prices depend on the time of year and class — the train has a VIP carriage, as well as first and second classes. Passengers travel only at nighttime but in air-conditioned comfort — a rarity in the world’s poorest continent — and the blue and yellow compartments are modern.

One of them is Miyha Koumba, a young student in Libreville who uses it to visit her family at the other end of the line.

“I take the train at least four times a year. I can visit my parents regularly,” she said, arriving in Libreville at 7 a.m. bleary-eyed, having departed Franceville at 5:30 p.m. the day before.

During the day, the train hauls manganese — a key export after oil — from the interior to the oceanside capital. Touting the train as a symbol of national unity and modernization, Bongo doggedly pressed on with the plan, saying: “If we need to have a pact with the Devil, we’ll do that.”

Fortune smiled on Gabon’s leader in 1973 when the OPEC cartel of oil producing nations raised prices dramatically, filling the country’s coffers and enabling him to start construction with the additional help of Western aid, notably from former colonial ruler France.

Bongo flagged off the project — the largest in Africa at the time — on Dec. 30, 1973. It cost $1.65 billion, and millions of trees were felled to cut the swathe through the jungle for the track, which is unelectrified.

In 1986, the last stretch was inaugurated in the presence of then French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac. Critics of the project have long pointed to its cost, to its use as a political tool for Bongo, whose partisan stronghold was centered in the region where Franceville is located, and to French involvement.

“Since its creation, the Transgabonais has been closely linked to France and its interests,” US law professor Douglas Yates, author of “The Rentier State in Africa: Oil Rent Dependency & Neocolonialism in the Republic of Gabon,” told AFP.

Its champions view it as a critical piece of infrastructure for Gabon’s development.

There is a road running parallel to the tracks. But it is riddled with potholes, making the journey much longer, far less comfortable, and dangerous too.


Cirque du Soleil walks a tightrope through pandemic

Updated 06 June 2020

Cirque du Soleil walks a tightrope through pandemic

  • Suitors wage backstage battle to rescue debt-stricken Canadian circus icon
  • Among the potential bidders is former fire eater Guy Laliberte, who fouded the acrobatic troupe in 1984

MONTREAL: Its shows canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an already heavily indebted Cirque du Soleil’s fight for survival has invited an intense backstage battle to try to save the Canadian cultural icon.

High on a list of potential suitors is former fire eater Guy Laliberte, who founded the acrobatic troupe in 1984 but later sold it.

“Its revival will have to be done at the right price. And not at all costs,” said the 60-year-old, determined not to see his creation sold to private interests.

The billionaire clown said after “careful consideration,” he decided “with a great team” to pursue a bid, but offered no details.

Under his leadership, the Cirque had set up big tops in more than 300 cities around the world, delighting audiences with contemporary circus acts set to music but without the usual trappings of lions, elephants and bears.

Then the pandemic hit, forcing the company in March to cancel 44 shows worldwide, from Las Vegas to Tel Aviv, Moscow to Melbourne, and lay off 4,679 acrobats and technicians, or 95 percent of its workforce.

Hurtling toward bankruptcy, the global entertainment giant and pride of Canada commissioned a bank in early May to examine its options, including a possible sale.

Meanwhile, shareholders ponied up $50 million in bridge financing for its “short-term liquidity needs.”

Laliberte, the first clown to rocket to the International Space Station in 2009, ceded control of the Cirque for $1 billion in 2015.

It has since fallen into the hands of American investment firm TPG Capital (55 percent stake) and China’s Fosun (25 percent), which also owns Club Med and Thomas Cook travel. The Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec (CDPQ) retains the last 20 percent.

The institutional investor, which manages public pension plans and insurance programs in Quebec, bought Laliberte’s last remaining 10 percent stake in the business in February, just before the pandemic.

Since 2015, the Cirque has embarked on costly acquisitions and renovations of permanent performance halls, while its creative spirit waned, according to critics in the Quebec press.

Meanwhile, it piled on more than $1 billion in debt.

Fearing that the Cirque would be “sold to foreign interests,” the Quebec government recently offered it a conditional loan of $200 million to help relaunch its shows as restrictions on large gatherings start to be eased worldwide.

But the agreement in principle is conditional on the Cirque headquarters remaining in Montreal and the province being allowed to buy US and Chinese stakes in the company at an unspecified time in the future, “at market value” and with “probably a local partner,” said Quebec Minister of the Economy Pierre Fitzgibbon.

“The state does not want to operate the circus, but the circus is too important to Quebec (to leave it to foreigners),” he said.

In addition to Laliberte, other prospective buyers include Quebecor, the telecoms and media giant of tycoon Pierre Karl Peladeau, whose opening lowball bid was outright rejected.

“It is essentially the value and reputation of the brand” that has piqued interest in the company, says Michel Magnan, corporate governance chair at Concordia University in Montreal.

But “as long as there are restrictions on gatherings of people, the future is not very rosy” for the Cirque, he said.

Several challenges await, according to Magnan.

“There were a lot of people working in all of these shows. Where are they now? What are they doing? How are they doing? In what shape are they, what state of mind?” he said.

“The more time passes, the more this expertise risks evaporating.”

Small consolation: The Cirque resumed its performances on Wednesday in Hangzhou, China, five months after a coronavirus outbreak in the city.