Voters in Gabon headed to the polls on Saturday, after intense presidential campaigning, to decide on the country’s third president since its independence in 1960. The incumbent president, Ali Bongo, is seeking a second seven-year term in a presidential race with fourteen other candidates approved by the electoral commission. The election took place amidst persistent social unrest, driven largely by the economic impact of the slump in oil price, which accounts for 80 percent of Gabon’s exports. Ahead of the official announcement of the result tomorrow, here is what you need to know:
Who are the main candidates?
The electoral commission approved 14 candidates but four have since dropped out to back the campaign of Jean Ping, making him the main opposition against Ali Bongo. The current president came into power following the death of his father, Omar Bongo, in 2009. The 57-year-old Muslim convert served as both Foreign Minister and Minister of Defence during his father’s administration. His father remains one of the longest-serving presidents in Africa, having stayed in power for over four decades.
Ali Bongo’s first term was overshadowed by a long-running French investigation into allegations of embezzlement involving the Bongo family’s assets. While the family denies the allegations, Bongo has promised to give away all the money he inherited from his father. His re-election bid was not welcome by all in his party, and this caused a split within the party, culminating in the decision of dissenters to form oppositions – Heritage and Modernity Rally Party.
Veteran diplomat Mr. Jean Ping is the main opposition candidate. Mr. Ping, whose father is Chinese, is not exactly an outsider. He also served as foreign minister under Omar Bongo and fathers two children with the ex president’s eldest daughter. One of his most high-profile positions was chairing the African Union Commission for four years until 2012. Two years later he left the ruling party and now has the endorsement of the Front for Political Change, the main opposition party.
A few other candidates like 49-year-old Bruno Ben Moubamba represent a new generation of politicians but they lack the political machinery, popularity and resources to mount a serious challenge.
Opposition presents a more united front
The opposition in Gabon presented a slightly more united front than usual in last Saturday’s presidential election, raising expectations that the vote could be closer than it’s been in previous years. Ali Bongo faced 22 candidates last time, but this time there are nine challengers as some parties have come together to support challenger Jean ping. The 73-year-old has won the backing of two opposition heavyweights who were also both former allies of the Bongo family: Casimir Oye Mba, a former prime minister, and ex-parliament speaker Nzouba Ndama. Two other candidates have withdrawn in his favour. With more unity among the opposition parties than before, the election is expected to be closer than its predecessors. Similar to the 2009 elections after the death of Omar Bongo, this election has been hotly contested. And, in what has been a fiercely fought campaign, the younger Bongo’s nationality has been called into question.
Is the president Gabonese?
This is the question that has dominated the election news cycle in Gabon. Most opposition candidates allege that the president is ineligible to run because he is Nigerian-born and adopted by his father; this, the president denies. The constitution says presidential candidates must be born in Gabon. On 25th July 2016, the Constitutional Court in Libreville, the country’s capital, ruled that Mr. Bongo was indeed Gabonese.
The topic has overshadowed primary issues such as the enduring poverty of most citizens despite the country’s relative wealth. Gabon has one of the highest per-capita incomes in Africa at $11,500 as at 2011. But, only a few of its 1.6 million people enjoy the benefits of the country’s wealth, as a third of its citizens live in poverty. Unemployment is as high as 27 percent and the figure is even higher when considering youth unemployment. The oil-dependent economy is also under pressure because of the depressed crude oil prices worldwide. Also, public servants have gone on strike in recent months over unpaid salaries.
Both candidates have promised to make wide ranging reforms, and Mr. Bongo, as part of his anti corruption rhetoric, has said that he will move to reintroduce term limits removed in 2003, if elected. However, fundamental changes are unlikely, as both front runners and most minor candidates come from the same elite group who have governed the country since its independence.
Who will win?
Mr. Jean Ping declared himself the winner today, a day before the results are to be announced. He said that he was waiting for the president to call and congratulate him. Mr Ping also said the president has recruited “mercenaries” ahead of the vote, suggesting that Mr. Bongo can only win “through fraud.”
The president does have an edge as he controls the state’s machinery. However, this is set to be Gabon’s closest election since independence and perhaps the economic slowdown, combined with persistent social unrest, may just have been enough to produce a new leader outside the Bongo family.
Significantly, the atmosphere has been calm after the elections as citizens await the result. There has been an increase in the number of policemen and night time checks in the city, as there remain fears that a controversial result might denigrate into violence similar to that which erupted after Bongo’s controversial victory in 2009. Several people were killed, buildings looted and the French consulate in the economic capital Port-Gentil torched. Already, the controversy over President Bongo’s nationality had sparked sporadic violence, especially in the nations capital, Libreville.