On 24 September Gabon’s constitutional court issued a final ruling which upheld President Ali Bongo’s narrow election victory over rival candidate Jean Ping, signalling an end to the country’s recent political turmoil. Whilst stability has been restored for now, tensions are likely to remain bubbling just beneath the surface after large-scale opposition protests were ended violently by Gabon’s security forces following the controversial August 27 vote.
The official result – announced three days after the polls closed – handed incumbent Ali Bongo a second seven-year term in office with 49.8% of the popular vote, compared to 48.2% for rival candidate Jean Ping. With a winning margin of just 5,594 votes, the opposition labelled the election as fraudulent and demanded a re-count in the eastern province of Haut Ogooue, where turnout was 99.93% and 95% of people voted for President Bongo. Election analysts have argued that 99% turnout is almost impossible even in countries where voting is compulsory, whilst Gabon’s own interior ministry said turnout in other provinces ranged from 45-71%, further raising concerns and highlighting the suspicious nature of the result in Haut Ogooue.
International observers questioned the result almost immediately, whilst Jean Ping said the election outcome bore the ‘’hallmarks of dictators and tyrants who refuse to give up power’’. Opposition activists and many Gabonese citizens also questioned why it took the electoral commission more than three days to count votes in a country of just 1.8 million people, raising fears of vote-rigging and exposing an obvious lack of transparency.
Despite these accusations, the confirmation of the result through the constitutional court has lengthened the rule of one of Africa’s most entrenched political dynasties. Bongo’s father – Omar Bongo – had previously ruled Gabon for 42 years up until his death in 2009, holding on to power through an extensive patronage network in which oil revenues were used to buy-off political opponents and clamp down on opposition.
When protests erupted following the disputed result, President Bongo acted quickly to maintain his grip on power over a population clearly demonstrating its outrage at perceived corruption within the political establishment. At least three people were shot dead by security forces and hundreds were wounded after crowds attempted to storm the offices of the electoral commission in Libreville. The army fired stun grenades, tear gas and live bullets at protestors, yet the government has disputed these accusations and accused the opposition of fabricating its claims. The opposition contends that the death toll could be far higher than official figures, suggesting that up to 100 people may have been killed in several days of violence in the aftermath of the result being announced.
Opposition leader Jean Ping also told news outlets that his party headquarters had been bombed by a presidential guard helicopter, whilst security forces detained members of his National Union Party inside the building. The army also cracked-down on protestors who attacked and set fire to the National Assembly building on 31st August, which sustained significant damage. Interior minister Pacome Moubelet Boubeya said that 1,200 people had been arrested across the country after stability had been restored. The UN, US and France have all called for restraint and advocated for greater transparency with regard to the election results.
In the build-up to the constitutional court ruling on 24th September, there were widespread fears that the outcome would spark a new wave of riots across the country. Residents in Libreville scrambled to stockpile food and water supplies in the days leading up to the ruling, whilst the army erected road checkpoints around the capital and security forces patrolled the streets in an attempt to avoid a repeat of the violent scenes enacted in immediate aftermath of the election.
These fears proved to be unfounded as the security forces were better-prepared, meaning that a second wave of violence failed to materialize when the court announced its verdict. The ruling reaffirmed Bongo’s victory and declared the count in Haut Ogooue province was accurate. The court actually slightly increased Bongo’s share of the vote to 50.66% and reduced Ping’s to 47.24%, due to a correction of voting irregularities at 21 polling stations. In an attempt to ease tensions and heal divisions President Bongo rejected the need for international mediation and called for political dialogue, offering to include opposition lawmakers in his new cabinet.
Stability appears to have been restored in Gabon for now, yet the violent scenes and brutal crackdown in the aftermath of the election shows just how quickly events can turn. Whilst a repeat of the violence fortunately did not take place after the court ruling reaffirmed Bongo’s grip on power, recent events are indicative of divisions and tensions within Gabonese politics which are likely to remain dormant just beneath the surface, with the potential to quickly reignite during any future period of political upheaval.
In light of the violence, human rights group Amnesty International has warned that security forces in Gabon must ‘’refrain from using excessive force against protestors’’, stating that ‘’such a brutal response violates protesters’ rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, as well as inflaming an already tense situation’’.
In the wider context, Gabon’s disputed election and the ensuing unrest provides further evidence of the continuation of a worrying historical trend across the region, whereby political elites attempt to cling on to power through manipulating election results, altering electoral procedures and clamping-down on opposition groups. Gabon can now be added to the growing list of countries in sub-Saharan Africa which have suffered election-related instability in recent years – with other examples including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Zimbabwe – indicating a continued lack of transparency in democratic processes across the continent, which all too often results in violence.