13 January 2017
by Olivia Johnson
At the end of August, the controversial outcome of the Gabonese presidential elections erupted in domestic protests and international inquiry. The sitting President Ali Bongo emerged victorious with 49.8% of the vote. He beat opposition member Jean Ping by less than 6000 votes nationally, which raised suspicion. Moreover, in Bongo’s own constituency, voter turnout was reported at 99% with a 95% majority for Bongo. This was an obvious anomaly compared to voter statistics from other regions and the average voter turnout, 59.46% nationally. This made the outcome even more suspect. Immediately Ping filed a lawsuit against Bongo for voter fraud. EU observers supported Ping’s claim that there was a clear inconsistency with the results.
Meanwhile, the UN Secretary General urged the leaders to make efforts to diffuse the violent clashes that were emerging in response to the electoral outcome. The national forces, remaining loyal to the incumbent president, cracked down on protesters and Ping supporters. Among the chaos, the National Assembly was set on fire, hundreds were arrested, and dozens were killed. The electoral violence however, did not come as much of a surprise. Before the election results were announced, Gabonese residents began stockpiling food and government forces were deployed on the streets in anticipation of upset. After the announcement the Gabonese justice minister and ‘long time member of Bongo’s inner circle’ stepped down in protest. During this time, there were also disruptions to internet and social media access across the country. This was most likely an attempt to prevent the organisation of more protests and popular movements.
After internal and external pressure, the Gabonese government agreed to conduct a ballot recount. This is reminiscent of Bongo’s last victory in 2009, which was also brought to the constitutional court. The court blocked monitoring requests by the African Union to participate in or observe the recount on grounds of sovereignty. The EU electoral monitoring mission in Gabon, that was present for the entire election period, was only given very limited access to the recount process. This came after members of Bongo’s party accused the EU monitors of overstepping their mandate.
The investigation eventually announced it upheld Bongo’s victory. The court could not conduct a comprehensive recount because votes were burned at polling stations right after they were tallied. Rather, officials recounted the reported tallies from each polling station. The overall results changed slightly but failed to discount Bongo’s victory. Interestingly, the recount gave Bongo more votes than the election results had counted. His voter share increased to 50.66%. Jean Ping was outraged by the findings, claimed that the court was biased, and refused to accept the results. Despite this, three days after the announcement by the constitutional court, Bongo was sworn in for his second seven-year term. The ceremony was attended by some other regional leaders. However, most ‘heavyweights’ were not present.
Ali Bongo is the son of Omar Bongo, who was the President of Gabon for 41 years. After Omar Bongo died, Ali was elected his successor. In 2003 Omar Bongo amended the Gabonese constitution to eliminate any limits to the number of terms a President could serve. Ali Bongo could be trying to follow his father’s lead and serve as president for life. However, Ali Bongo does not enjoy nearly the same rate of public approval that his father did. Especially after the large corruption investigation into the Bongo family after Omar Bongo’s death. Ali Bongo tried to mitigate the effects of this by giving away part of his inheritance. However, these and other efforts failed to reach the large part of Gabonese society continuing to live in poverty. In this election it also became clear that Ali Bongo had also lost the support of the former colonial power in Gabon, the French, who supported Omar Bongo throughout his presidency and Ali Bongo’s firth term. He claimed this did not bother him, as he was more concerned with domestic than international support.
Although the way the election played out raises questions of electoral legitimacy in Gabon, the re-election of Ali Bongo also means that Gabon will be ensured some degree of political continuity. The discovery of oil largely underpinned the rapid economic growth of Gabon under Omar Bongo. Before oil prices collapsed and the oil market turbulence started, Ali Bongo decided to diversify the Gabonese economy mostly by investing in domestic infrastructure. Currently the projections for economic growth and the expansion of key infrastructure, such as electricity networks, are very promising. This is especially apparent when compared to other countries in the Central African region and other oil based economies. To this end, political continuity at this time supports the successful continuation of these initiatives. On the other hand, the Bongo family has been accused of gross financial misconduct and corruption in the past. It is not clear that economic expansion under Bongo would necessarily benefit the Gabonese people as much as it would his own interests.
In Gabon, this kind of political continuity has arguably safeguarded it against some of the problems faced by other oil producing states following the collapse of oil prices. At the same time, the fact that the public has become accustomed to anticipating electoral violence and that the wealth created by oil production still has not reached all levels of society are causes for concern. Moreover, there are some aspects of the political dynamics in Gabon that could be conducive to future risk. The electoral system in Gabon has been structured in a way that is conducive to fraud. Results are not released progressively and arguably do not face robust legal scrutiny. Combating some of these issues was the focus of the EU mission, which was sent to Gabon in order to assist the Constitutional Court of Gabon and to promote election transparency. However, as soon as the situation turned controversial, the observers were barred from having any meaningful access to the process. This calls into question how effective external influence is to promote electoral legitimacy, and the extent to which election monitoring missions have the capacity to elicit meaningful change.
Ultimately, the controversy was resolved and Ali Bongo was able to maintain his grip on power. However, the way the election played out identified political divisions within Gabon as well as weak points in the approach of the international community to promote democratic norms. The next seven years under Bongo in Gabon will not likely be sufficient to address the grievances underpinning the political fragmentation, and could erupt in even more social turbulence in the next election.
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