June 5, 2012 12:15 am

Infrastructure: Projects all in hands of Bechtel

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A good place to take the measure of Gabon’s ambition is the National Infrastructure Agency, known more grandly in French as the Agence Nationale des Grands Travaux.

The government body, responsible for developing the country’s roads, rail, ports, communications, and housing stock, is based in a modern six-storey office block on Libreville’s main seafront road.

Inside, the staff poring over documents or preparing PowerPoint presentations, are mostly foreign. Many are direct employees of Bechtel, the US engineering and construction giant, and are on secondment.

President Ali Bongo Ondimba, looking to jump-start development and root out graft and inefficiency in public spending, has subcontracted responsibility for Gabon’s big public work projects to the US group until 2016.

Henri Ohayon, the agency’s director-general, is responsible for implementing one of Africa’s most sweeping infrastructure programmes.

The plans include 30,000 new units of social housing, hundreds of kilometres of roads and railways to be built or upgraded, and a new port and marina facility in the capital.

Mr Ohayon says: “You have an extremely dynamic president who wants to make sure the country is developing in the right direction, that projects are built within international norms, to a high quality, within budget and on time.”

For anyone with a grip on Gabon’s current reality, the plans might sound implausible.

Outside Libreville’s impressive city centre, good roads are scarce, and many are impassable in the rainy season. Visitors sometimes struggle with poor mobile phone reception.

Traffic on the main north-south road has been impeded since February, when a barge damaged a bridge at Kango, east of Libreville. Export companies have to contend with a port in Libreville that closes on weekends and sees frequent strikes.

Mr Bongo is trying to change that. After taking office in 2010, the president, who got to know Bechtel when it conducted studies for his father’s government in the 1980s, contacted the company with an offer to develop and manage a new infrastructure agency for a fee.

Gabon and Bechtel negotiated a three-part contract to develop a master plan, set up the agency and support the government in managing the projects. The US group will not disclose terms of the deal, which it says lasts five years and can be extended.

Bechtel’s first mandate was to build hotels, stadiums, and roads, and train staff for the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament, which was held this year.

The two sides then identified a further 114 projects, mostly in education, housing, and transport.

Over the next five years, Gabon is to spend CFA300bn ($450m) on education: new schools, universities, and colleges, and communications links. The aim is to improve local services to the point that fewer young Gabonese need to study overseas.

Bechtel recently also issued a first wave of contracts to build public housing, for which Gabon is budgeting about CFA396bn over five years.

In transport, Bechtel and the government are studying the building or upgrading of more than 1,700km of roads and more than 800km of rail, mostly for the transport of minerals.

A design and feasibility study is in progress for the new port, marina and conference centre that could be worth $3bn to $4bn, including outside investors.

Separately, the government is planning large investments in fibre networks to develop internet education and medical services, and bring broadband to the isolated interior.

“Currently, Gabon is walking at two speeds. There’s Libreville, which is more developed; and other cities that are less so,” says Blaise Louembe, the information technology minister. “We want to bring to the interior of the country the same technological advantages there are in Libreville.”

Given the large amount of public money in play, officials say they are making transparency and integrity a priority.

Bechtel, says Mr Ohayon, is in Gabon to ensure that there are “no deviations or concessions” from ethical practice on the awarding of big contracts.

The US group has already dismissed one employee over ethical concerns. Gabonese criminal authorities are investigating, in connection with an $8m contract for 20 buses, ordered from a UK company for the Africa Cup of Nations, an ex-Bechtel staffer who was seconded to the infrastructure agency.

Another concern is that Gabon’s president, with big oil revenues at his disposal, will splash out too much on undertakings that make little economic sense.

Many other resource-rich African countries are littered with prestige projects commissioned in decades past. Mr Ohayon dismisses the concern. “The president doesn’t want white elephants – projects that start and don’t finish – or projects that have been built and no one knows why,” he says.

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