Gabon joins Africa’s list of dynasties, disputed polls

Monday September 14 2009

Ali Ben Bongo, the new President of Gabon.

Ali Ben Bongo, the new President of Gabon. 


It is becoming a worrying tradition in Africa to see election results get violently contested, with often bloody results. It happened in Kenya in 2007. It happened in Zimbabwe a few years later. Recently, it was Gabon’s turn.

There were strong indications in Kenya, and more so in Zimbabwe, that the presidential elections may have been manipulated to the detriment of the losing party, hence the subsquent pressure from the international community for the protagonists to share power.

There were two main curiosities about the Gabonese election: The unexpectedly wide margin between the incumbent and the opponents and the suspiciously long delay between voting day and the announcement of the result — from August 30 to September 4.

Given the circumstances, the announcement of the winner hardly surprised anyone. Nor was the subsequent eruption of violence, concentrated in the port city of Gentil, that interestingly targeted French oil interests.

All along, most analysts had resigned themselves to the seeming inevitability of the election being no more than a sideshow in an officially orchestrated scheme to install Ali Ben Bongo as the dynastic successor to his late father, Omar Bongo.

This will hardly be the first dynasty in Francophone Africa. In Togo in 2005, Faure Gnassingbe took over from his father Gnassingbe Eyadema, who had ruled even longer than Omar Bongo.

Like the senior Bongo, Eyadema had taken the precaution of putting his son in the centre of power as a cabinet minister. The only difference between the two dynasts was that the Bongos rely on a (literally) well-oiled patronage while the Eyademas survive principally on their intimate ties to the Togolese military.

The tension over the delay in announcing the result had been palpable — and understandable. Gabon is a small country of 1.5 million people. Assuming half of them are of voting age and that all of them were registered voters and they actually voted, it is curious why it took almost a week to tally the result.

To underscore the confusion, all the three leading candidates — Bongo of the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PGD), Pierre Mamboundou of the Alliance for Change and Restoration, and independent candidate Andre Mba Obame — declared victory well before the final result was announced.

Interior Minister Jean-Francois Ndongou was initiallyto make the result public by last Tuesday. But the meeting where this was to be done was unexpectedly suspended and the announcement pushed to Thursday.

When Bongo Junior, 50, threw his hat into the ring, he made a show of resigning his powerful Defence portfolio in seeming deference to widespread complaints that there was no level playing field.

Nonetheless, his extremely well-funded campaign continued to show all the trappings of government backing. And there was the imprimatur of the PGD, which his father founded and turned into a patronage machine indistinguishable from the government.

He even went about making statements as if he was the incumbent candidate, warning protesters on Radio France International ahead of the poll: “It is clear that we cannot accept disorder. We shall use all the institutions that the law authorises us to use — the street belongs to no one.”

There was nothing idle about the warning. Security was tight ahead of the publication of results and the country’s borders closed, amid sporadic looting in Libreville and reports that the two main opposition candidates have gone underground. Talk last week of them announcing an “alternative” government was unlikely to sway Bongo, given the tight grip he has on the security organs.

Unlike many former French colonies who adopted the French system, Gabon does not have a provision for a second-round election. The candidate with the most votes wins outright, even without a majority.

Among those most relieved at Bongo’s victory are the big local and foreign investors. France, especially, has major interests in Gabon through the Total oil company. Britain, too, has important interests through oil exploration company Tullow, which was behind the recent oil finds in western Uganda.