Voters in Gabon are preparing to head to the polls on Saturday as President Ali Bongo Ondimba seeks a third term in office after stroke recovery.
The election follows a tumultuous seven-year term for Bongo, during which he faced numerous challenges to his fitness to govern due to health concerns.
Bongo has been in power since 2009, taking over from his father, Omar Bongo, who served as Gabon’s president for an astonishing 42 years. However, his leadership has been marred by health issues and controversy.
The previous election in 2016 resulted in a narrow victory for Bongo, with a disputed margin of just 5,500 votes. His opponent, Jean Ping, accused him of fraud and challenged the results. The election also saw violent protests erupt across the country, further questioning the legitimacy of Bongo’s presidency.
Soon after his re-election, Bongo suffered a stroke in October 2018, which left him incapacitated for almost a year. His prolonged absence fueled speculation and rumours, with some suggesting that a lookalike was standing in for him. The situation created uncertainty and instability within the country, as accusations of governance incapability were hurled at Bongo.
In January 2019, Gabon faced an attempted coup, orchestrated by a small group of soldiers. The coup quickly fizzled out, but it further highlighted the fragility of the political situation in the country. Bongo’s return from his convalescence marked a turning point in his presidency.
Since his recovery, Bongo has sought to reestablish his image and consolidate his power. He positioned himself as a strong leader, determined to root out “traitors” and “profiteers” within his inner circle. As a result, his chief of staff, Brice Laccruche Alihanga, and several ministers and senior civil servants are currently serving prison sentences on charges of corruption and other crimes.
Despite his physical limitations, Bongo has been portrayed by visitors and diplomats as mentally capable. He has successfully projected an image of an alert and focused leader, committed to leading Gabon towards progress and development.
In anticipation of the upcoming vote, the 64-year-old candidate has embarked on a nationwide tour, organising grassroots rallies under the banner of the “republican” movement.
The streets of Libreville, the capital city, have been adorned with an overwhelming number of campaign posters featuring Bongo and prominently displaying the colours of his political party, the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG).
With 13 candidates in total competing for the presidency, Bongo maintains a significant lead as the clear frontrunner. Many of his opponents are relatively unknown figures in Gabonese politics.
Despite initial divisions within opposition parties, they have now united behind a single figure – Albert Ondo Ossa. Ossa is a 69-year-old economics professor who previously served as a minister during Bongo’s administration from 2006 to 2009.
In a show of solidarity and consensus, Ossa held his inaugural rally as the unified opposition candidate just last Sunday.
Election Outcry: A Challenge to Democracy in Gabon
Gabon, a small central African nation with 850,000 eligible voters, is facing a storm of criticism over its recent elections. The outcry from opposition groups revolves around a key change in the balloting process that occurred just a month before polling day. This change, which combined the ballot for a party’s presidential candidate with its candidates for the legislature, has been condemned as a violation of the right to vote and the separation of powers.
The ruling party, the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), already holds a vast majority in the outgoing National Assembly. Critics argue that the new ballot design gives an unfair advantage to the ruling party, making it easier for them to consolidate their power. By merging the presidential and legislative candidates on a single ballot sheet, the PDG can potentially sway voters who may be uninformed about the legislative candidates and base their decision solely on the presidential contender.
The opposition’s grievances do not stop there. They are also furious about a change made five months ago, which did away with the need for a runoff election if the first round failed to produce a winner with more than 50 percent of the vote.
This alteration raises concerns about the legitimacy of the election results, as a candidate could potentially win with a small portion of the votes. Critics argue that this undermines the democratic process by allowing a candidate to secure power without gaining the majority support of the people.
The turmoil surrounding the elections in Gabon shines a light on the larger issues the country faces. Despite having a per capita income that ranks among the highest in Africa, thanks to its abundant oil, manganese, and timber resources, a significant portion of the population still lives below the poverty line.
According to the World Bank, a third of Gabon’s population struggles to make ends meet. This stark wealth disparity and economic inequality contribute to deep-seated frustrations among the citizenry, which are further exacerbated by the perceived unfairness of the electoral system.