Gabon: Presidential Election – Time for Change or More of the Same?

Image: Flickr,Chatham House
Image: Flickr,Chatham House

Gabon goes to the polls to elect a new president on Sunday, nearly three months after the death of President Omar Bongo Ondimba at the age of 73.

Bongo was Africa’s longest-ruling president, having come to power in 1967. He had won his latest presidential term of seven years in 2005 with almost 80 percent of the vote, against a weak opposition.

The current poll pits Bongo’s son, Ali-Ben, against no fewer than 20 rivals. Given the history of his father’s dominance and the fractious nature of opposition politics in the oil-rich country, Ali Bongo is almost guaranteed victory.

What are the prospects that Ali-Ben will be able to hold together both the ruling coalition and the country amidst challenges to what appears to be a presidential dynasty and calls for change in the country’s leadership? And does the fragmentation of the opposition represent an elite clamouring for state power or genuine political pluralism?

The younger Bongo emerged as the candidate of the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) in July, beating off challenges from nine rivals. Four of them, including former Prime Minister Jean Eyeghe Ndong, have since declared that they will stand as independents.

The remaining presidential candidates include 10 independents, six leaders of opposition parties and two members of the Presidential Majority, a coalition of parties that has supported the elder Bongo’s presidency – mainly as a result of cooptation into cabinet and other government structures.

The date of the election itself is contested, due mainly to opposition complaints about the state of the voters’ roll. Following what appears to have been a national consensus, the poll was not held within the constitutionally-stipulated 45-day period after Bongo’s death and the Constitutional Court extended the period to September 4. This allowed the Permanent and Autonomous Electoral Commission (CENAP) to fix the polling date for August 30, in the face of objections from at least 11 candidates.

Campaigning officially kicked off on August 15 and has been dominated by calls for change – meaning the election of a president other than Bongo. The continued presence of Ali-Ben in cabinet despite his candidacy (together with three other candidates, two of whom subsequently resigned) saw riots in the capital Libreville, but the controversy died down following a reshuffle that replaced Bongo and another candidate, Maganga Massavou.

The complicated proliferation and permutations of opposition parties, “autonomous” parties that are part of the ruling Presidential Majority but are running candidates against Ali-Ben, and the number of independents, all point to a vigorous contestation for state power among the elite – spiced with regional and ethic politics.

This mix has been one of the major weaknesses of Gabonese politics, and one that allowed the senior Bongo to use state largesse, mainly from oil revenues, to divide and weaken the opposition through a combination of intimidation, repression and cooptation, thus keeping himself in power for more than 40 years. Ali-Ben’s “inherited” position will stand him in good stead in this regard.

On the other hand, the apparent haemorrhaging of the PDG’s and Presidential Majority’s leadership – evidenced by the defection of Ndong, the presentation of contesting candidates by no fewer than three parties in the Presidential Majority, and formation of a new party by Jean Remy Pendy Bouyiki – will pose a serious challenge to the new president.

Although many of these leaders are using the presidential race to flex their political muscles and position themselves to bargain for a share of state power after the election, the fact that they are beginning openly to challenge the Bongo supremacy may mean a more hotly-contested jostling for position than in the past.

How Ali-Ben handles these power contests as he seeks to consolidate his and the PDG’s position in Gabonese politics will determine whether the country genuinely transforms from a virtual fiefdom of the Bongos (with the stability that that implies), whether it disintegrates into internecine tribal and personality politics, or whether genuine political pluralism will finally emerge.

But for the time being what is almost certain is that the next president of Gabon will be a Bongo, carrying on a legacy of four decades of domination by one of Africa’s most effective dictators.

25 Aug 2009