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Gabon: Cost of back-to-school items weighs on parents

Gabon: Cost of back-to-school items weighs on parents
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Justine Ndoumba and her two daughters wander round the aisles of a school supplies shop carrying a long list of items required to start the new term in the Gabonese capital Libreville.

"The prices have increased and it's a bit difficult for us," she admits.

Even with the country's new military strongman declaring an end to enrollment fees for state and religious schools this year, it is still shaping up to be a tough time for families feeling the pinch from rising prices.

And it will make no difference for Ndoumba's daughters who attend a private school.

President Ali Bongo Ondimba, who was ousted on August 30, left behind a national education system so ill-equipped that parents will risk everything to get their children into the private sector.

The senior army officers now in charge in the oil-rich central African nation have made schools a priority.

"With 30,000 CFA francs (45 euros, $48) today, you can buy just three or four notebooks," says Ndoumba, a 38-year-old pharmacist.

"A school bag which used to cost 15,000 (23 euros), today costs 35,000 or 40,000."

Twenty-three-year-old Charlene Mabika has three children and is shocked at how much prices have gone up over the last year.

"This year it really is too expensive," she says, pointing to "40,000 (60 euros) for a bag."

The minimum wage is 150,000 francs a month -- about 230 euros.

- Corruption -

Gabon has abundant oil reserves, manganese and timber, but lives off imports. Its wealth is in the hands of a small elite.

A third of the population lives below the poverty line -- two euros a day -- despite the country ranking among the richest in Africa, according to the world Bank.

Coup leader General Brice Oligui Nguema, who put an end to 55 years of rule by the Bongo dynasty and is now the transitional president, has accused successive administrations of massive corruption and disastrous management.

Justine Ndoumba keeps totting up the costs -- the school supplies alone will come to 180,000 francs (270 euros).

"I cannot spend that amount," she says, deciding to buy items gradually until the end of January.

The new school year begins on September 18 but people have already been queuing outside schools in the week before to enrol and pay the first instalment of tuition fees.

- Confusion -

Oligui won praise for his September 8 announcement of free school enrollment -- but it also led to confusion.

Many people believed that school fees had also been lifted and some refused to pay them.

Education Minister Camelia Ntoutoume Leclercq appeared on TV on Thursday to try to clear up the misunderstanding.

At the Batavea primary school in the heart of the capital, Benoit Ndong, 38, is enrolling his two children for free -- a saving of 20,000 francs.

"But that doesn't change anything for the new school year" which he estimates will cost him a total of 200,000 francs CFA (300 euros).

"We will manage, we have to make do. Life in Gabon is very expensive, school costs a lot of money," says the teacher, who has not had a pay rise in eight years.

- Impatient -

Free enrollment won't change much either for 43-year-old Hella Ada Biteghe, a mother-of-four.

"It's really minimal" compared with the overall cost, she says.

"We have to buy books, we have to buy exercise books, we have to buy uniforms."

Gabon's new military rulers have been celebrated as national saviours, liberating the population from the Bongo clan's greed.

Oligui has announced a raft of measures to help the poor and promised to hand over power to civilians after elections, although he has yet to set a timeframe.

But he has also raised expectations -- and some are already showing signs of impatience.

Strikes and small gatherings have been held by public servants and private employees demanding sometimes months of back pay -- including in the education sector.

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