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Gabon faces uncertain future after violence-marred vote

After three days of violence and the death of more than 500 people, the Bongo family is cracking down on a popular uprising

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After three days of violence and a death toll which varies from more than 500 to the official count of seven, the Bongo family is cracking down on a popular uprising to maintain its grip over the little known country of Gabon. As many feared, the dynasty which ruled over the country for the last 50 years is crushing the hopes of a population just a few hours after democratic elections whose results were swiftly dressed up.

In particular, the final vote count from the Haut Ogoue province, the historical fiefdom of Ali Bongo, were provided several hours late and eventually revealed a population size vastly increased overnight, from official record down to the Wikipedia page. In that specific region, the ballot result communicated by the Bongo presidency showed a participation of 99.93 percent (40 percent above the national average) with 95 percent votes casted for the reelection of Ali Bongo, just enough to ensure him victory by less than 6000 votes.

Gabon is the archetype of post-colonial African countries fallen off the media radar despite the regular abuse of its population and endemic corruption. It could serve as a symbol of how a rich endowment in natural resources is being diverted by the very few for their personal staggering wealth while regular citizens struggle every day to make ends meet. Despite a well-educated population – illiteracy is below 3 percent – and the third largest hydrocarbon resources in sub-Saharan Africa, Gabon’s economic growth has been hampered by nepotism and inefficiency. The richest 20 percent of the population earn over 90 percent of the income while about a third of the Gabonese population lives in poverty.

As with many similar African countries, Gabon quickly drifted into authoritarianism after it gained its independence from France in the 1960s. Omar Bongo held the reins of the country until his death in 2009 when his son Ali Bongo took over after elections whose results were already heavily contested and met with violence and looting. Yet the division of the opposition and the relative lack of renown of the other candidates eased the way for a transition from the father to the son in the Bongo dynasty.

Seven years later, the opposition learned its lesson and advanced united behind Jean Ping a former minister and member of the Bongo inner circle who held key positions at UNESCO and the African Union. If Ping hardly represents a clear change from the Gabonese establishment, he has devoted his last two years to meet with Gabonese across the country and built consensus around his name ahead of last week’s elections.

But if the opposition was better prepared, so was the presidential palace. What Gabon has experienced in recent days is a model of authoritarian crackdown and control of information from a state apparatus firmly controlled by Ali Bongo. Last April, reports of large deliveries of military and police equipment believed to be shipped from the Ukrainian conflict stirred worrisome reactions from the population. Similarly, rumors spread of the constitution of a mercenary contingent within the Republican guard composed of former soldiers from Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia and Benin.

Soon after the proclamation of the results, Internet access was cut as well as cell phone services from providers apart from the state controlled Gabon Telecom. Opposition leaders were sequestrated in their campaign headquarters and thousands arrested. Despite governmental control, widespread accounts of civilian shots in the street were confirmed. In the capital Libreville, as well as in all major cities in the country, demonstration faced anti-riot troops shooting at them. European news agencies reported more than 500 deaths although this number is likely higher since bodies are being swiftly carried away by the armed forces, according to my sources, reducing the capacity to issue accurate death tolls.

As always, however, the popular rebellion will have little hope if the international community does not exert strong pressure on the Bongo administration. While Nicolas Sarkozy was among the first to congratulate Ali Bongo in 2009, France has requested detailed results of each polling station showing a change of attitude under Francois Hollande toward its former colony. The French extreme right however continued its support to direct interference in African affairs as proven by Jean Marie Le Pen’s tweet of congratulation towards his friend Ali Bongo.

The next days will define the future of an angry population frustrated by this new reported denial of democracy. Fear is everywhere and the deserted streets provide an excuse for Ali Bongo to claim that the situation is calming down and under control. Gabonese huddle in their houses, hiding their cellphones to take photos of the repression in the hope that the International Court of Justice will eventually be able to use those. However, until the international community is able to force a recount or pressure Ali Bongo to respect the will of the Gabonese population, the future of Gabon will remain uncertain.

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