Gabon sinks into turmoil after disputed election

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 September, 2016, 7:28am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 September, 2016, 7:28am

Hundreds of soldiers and police officers were deployed in Gabon’s capital Libreville on Friday to restore order after two days of post-election riots that appeared to threaten the half-century grip President Ali Bongo’s family has held on power.

Violence erupted across the Central African nation on Wednesday with the announcement of a slim victory for Bongo, who was first elected in 2009 on the death of his father Omar, Gabon’s president for 42 years.

Five people died in the unrest, Bongo’s spokesman Alain-Claude Bilie By Nze said on Friday, and up to 1,100 arrests had been made by Thursday, according to the interior minister.

Bongo’s main rival Jean Ping said he won the vote, claiming the result annouced by the commission was rigged, and has called upon the international community to intervene.

But analysts said intervention from abroad was unlikely.

“It looks like the result will stand,” NKC African Economics’ head of research, Francois Conradie, said. “But Bongo has lost legitimacy and will face an unruly labour environment for his next term,” referring to possible strikes.

In Libreville’s wide waterfront avenues, traffic resumed on Friday, occasionally veering to dodge litter or burnt tyres. Some shops reopened and residents queued to buy food.

Television stations, supermarkets, shops, and homes were looted in Libreville on Wednesday and Thursday and unrest also broke out in other cities and in rural areas.

“I’m sad for my country because such things should never happen,” National Assembly President Richard Auguste Onouviet said as he surveyed the damage at the parliament building, whose assembly hall was gutted by arson on Wednesay.

In some suburbs residents said they had formed small self-defence groups against looters.

“We cannot take this anymore and we are stopping the vandals,” said Stephane Mounanga, 44, from the Dragage suburb.

The Bongos have long relied on patronage to buy off dissent. But falling prices and production, dominated by Total and Shell, have led to budget cuts in a country where many citizens have not enjoyed the fruits of oil wealth.

Soldiers were positioned at crossroads on Friday and the elite Republican Guard ensured security near the presidential palace. Riot police were also on the streets.

A group of Ping’s supporters remained inside his headquarters on Friday, surrounded by security forces, nearly two days after the opposition leader said the building came under attack by soldiers, killing two people.

Ping’s spokesman Jean Gaspard Ntoutoume Ayi said the group included former Vice-President Didjob Divungi Di Ndinge.

Bongo’s spokesman Bilie By Nze said on Friday afternoon they were free to leave, although it could not immediately be confirmed if security forces had allowed this.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault had earlier demanded their release and said it was working with partners to find a quick solution to the crisis.

France, the United States and the European Union have urged the authorities to release individual polling station results, a request Bongo’s spokesman rejected on Thursday.

Interviewed on Friday on France 2 television, Ayrault repeated the call for more transparency but ruled out intervening in Gabon, home to 14,000 French citizens.

“We are Africa’s partners but we do not want in any case to intervene in countries’ internal affairs. That would be disrespectful of Africans,” he said.

France has had military base in Gabon since independence in 1960 and 450 troops are stationed there, according to the French defence ministry.

France intervened in the Ivory Coast in 2011 under a U.N. mandate to help oust then-president Laurent Gbagbo after he refused to accept defeat in a disputed election.

More recently it has intervened in Libya, Mali and Central African Republic.

During more than four decades in power, Omar Bongo cultivated close relations with a succession of French presidents but Ali Bongo’s ties to Paris have been more tenuous.

Gabon recalled its ambassador to Paris in January after France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls appeared to question the legitimacy of Bongo’s 2009 election.

Ping, a former diplomat and African Union Commission chairman, is a lifelong insider to Gabonese politics who fathered two children with Omar Bongo’s daughter, Pascaline.