The official results of Gabon's latest census show the population grew by 50 percent to 1.5 million in the 10 years to 2003, but the opposition leaders and independent experts have accused the government of inflating the figures in order to stuff the electoral register with false names and manipulate economic data in order to qualify for increased aid.
“The incoherent swelling of the of the current population of Gabon hides a manipulation of the electoral roll and also implies a reduction of development indicators, notably GDP per capita and Gabon’s rating on the (UN) Human Development Index,” said Mathias Ndomba, a leader of the Union of Gabonese People (UPG) opposition party.
Presidential elections are due before the end of the year and President Omar Bongo is widely expected to seek a fresh term. He has ruled the oil-rich African country since 1967 and is Africa’s longest serving heading of state. All the multiparty elections held since 1993 have been marred by allegations of fraud.
According to the World Bank, oil producer Gabon’s estimated income per capita for 2003 was US$ 4,674 – well above the sub-Saharan average of US$ 490. But oil offshore reserves are running dry and the World Bank has warned the government that it urgently needs to diversify the oil-focused economy into new areas such as mining, forestry and fishing to avert recession.
The 2003 census, which was carried out by the Ministry of Planning and Development, concluded that the population of this former French colony had increased to 1,520, 911 people from 1,050,000 at the previous census in 1993.
Its findings were endorsed by the cabinet last week. But demography experts, including one within the government, said such a rapid increase did not make sense.
“If life expectancy in Gabon is 50 years, the death rate is 18 percent and the birth rate 35 percent and if women have on average 4.9 children each, then the population simply cannot have increased so strongly between 1993 and 2003,” said Janvier Alewina, a statistical expert at the Ministry of Planning.
"The rising death rate and the increasing poverty of the population in recent years does not indicate such a rapid increase in the population," agreed Doctor Sylvain Ekoure, a gynaecologist at a large hospital in the capital Libreville.
"It would be something of a record given that the number of births in the main hospitals has been going down," he added.
Sociologist Michel Ngnewle, joined in the chorus of criticism,accusing the government of inflating the census returns in order to stuff the electoral roll with phantom voters in Bongo's home region, who would be registered as having cast their ballot for the president and his ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG).
“The size of the population has been inflated for electoral ends since we are approaching a presidential election in which abstention is likely to reach record levels," he told IRIN.
"This artificial inflation of the population harks back to practices that were common in the past in other African countries, notably to try and attract more aid from the international community." he added.
But Ngnewle said the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank would not be fooled easily.
"The Bretton Woods institutions know that Gabon is a poor pupil of the principles of good governance and that Gabonese officials have been playing around with the electoral lists, particularly in the south of the country were president Bongo comes from.
This has been divided into eight constituencies that together elect the same humber of deputies as the other eight regions of the country," the sociologist said.
Even high-ranking members of the ruling party have admitted that the census was poorly organised.
“The government census is not reliable as there are regions where the census enumerators did not even vist, despite the considerable amount equipment which was allocated to them to do their work correctly. The money was misused,” PDG vice-president Louis-Gaston Mayila told IRIN.
He estimated that Gabon's native population has been swollen by 80,000 economic migrants from other parts of West Africa and 28,000 French residents, who had come to share in the fruits of its oil boom.
He cautioned that the government should be more careful about who was allowed to stay permanently and take up Gabonese nationality.
“Gabon needs a selective immigration policy where useful professionals for the development of the country – who want to stay here permanently - would be granted nationality on the condition that they adopt our culture and our laws,” said Mayila.
Marie Madelaine Mborantsuo, the President of the Constitutional Court, recently expressed concern that people had not been given enough information about the referendum and its aims.
This had led to many foreigners being wrongly included on the electoral role, she added.