Presidential elections took place in Gabon on August 27, 2016. On August 31, both the incumbent president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, and his main opponent, Jean Ping, announced that they won the elections. The official results, however, declared Ali Bongo Ondimba the winner, with a total of 177,722 votes to the incumbent, while Ping and his political party Union of Forces for Change collected 172,128 votes.
The news resulted in immediate and massive street protests from the opposition. During clashes between the police and protesters, at least five demonstrators were reported dead. In addition, 200 stores were ransacked and the national parliament building was set on fire:
#Gabon‘s national assembly set ablaze in the immediate aftermath of what many are calling a rigged election result: https://t.co/WjOEmyPZSa
— Jeffrey Smith (@Smith_JeffreyT) August 31, 2016
🔴 #Gabon2016 riots NOW people calling for HELP PLS @BreakingF24 @JTAtv5monde @BFMTV @itele @BBCBreaking @cnnbrk @RFI pic.twitter.com/6TYkNTrljO
— Gloria Mika (@gloriamika) September 2, 2016
The main players and fraud allegations
This is not the first time that elections have been highly contested in Gabon. The incumbent, Ali Bongo Ondimba, is the son of former despot Omar Bongo, who was the country's president from 1967 until his death in 2009. During his father's presidency, Ali Bongo Ondimba was minister of foreign affairs (1989 to 1991) and minister of defense (1999 to 2009). He was also the candidate of the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) in the August 2009 presidential election in which, according to official results, he won with 42% of the vote. But one of his opponents, Andre Mba Obame, alleged that the elections were rigged and many of Obame's supporters protested in the streets of Port-Gentil.
Similar allegations are now being expressed by Jean Ping, who has enjoyed a long career as a diplomat and politician. As the chairperson of the Commission of the African Union from 2008 to 2012, Ping was often involved in trying to resolve electoral crises — Madagascar in 2009 and Côte d'Ivoire in 2010. Interestingly, he is now entrenched in a political crisis in his own country and will get to see whether his negotiation skills can be put to work for his own interest.
Alioune Tine, head of Amnesty International in West and Central Africa, explained what is at stake in Gabon:
Si vous multipliez les obstacles pour arriver à des élections transparentes et à une alternance pacifique, forcément vous aboutissez à des situations de cette nature. En Afrique centrale, on n’a pas l’impression que les gens veulent quitter le pouvoir. Surtout quand il s’agit d’une famille qui y est restée très longtemps. Il faut une équité dans la gestion des ressources. Il ne faut pas que ce soit un groupe, un clan ou une famille qui gardent tout. Les autres vont demander d’une façon ou d’une autre leur part du gâteau. Soit vous changez pacifiquement par des élections transparentes dont les résultats sont acceptés, et si vous ne le faites pas, vous ne pouvez espérer bénéficier d’une stabilité dans la durée. Il faut créer de véritables forces républicaines qui ne sont pas là pour défendre un régime. Nous avons demandé aux forces de sécurité gabonaises et aux autorités en place d’arrêter l’usage excessif de la force. Les gens doivent pouvoir exprimer leur mécontentement pacifiquement, sans avoir peur pour leur vie. Sans avoir peur pour leur intégrité physique.
If you multiply the obstacles to conduct transparent elections and have a peaceful transition, inevitably you will end up with situations of this nature. In Central Africa, we do not sense that the reigning elite is willing to yield power. Especially when it is a family that have remained in power for a long time. Countries must strive for equity in the management of resources and power. It cannot be the property of a single group, clan or family who keep holding on to everything. Others will ask in one way or another for a piece of the pie. Either you change peacefully through transparent elections whose results are accepted by the majority or if you do not, you can expect to receive a stability over time. We must put in place a genuine republican system that is not there just to defend a regime. We asked the Gabonese security forces and authorities in place to stop the excessive use of force. People need to express their discontent peacefully, without fear for their lives, without fear for their physical integrity.
Aside from the allegations of fraud and the street protests, things have changed drastically in Gabon between the 2009 and 2016 elections. For starters, Gabonese civil society has grown much further in getting organized and extending its network. As soon as the fraud allegations came to the fore, many local associations were able to verify and provide evidence of malfeasance when appropriate — which brings us directly to the next event in the Gabon crisis that suggests ill intentions may be at play from the current administration: internet censorship.
The following tweet illustrates without much doubt that the government willfully shut down the internet on the eve of the publication of the country's electoral results:
Internet shutdown in Gabon started Wednesday night #Gabon2016 #GabonVote pic.twitter.com/57zicxUWeQ
— Vote4Africa (@vote4africa) September 2, 2016
Julie Owono, Global Voices contributor and head of the African Desk at Internet Without Borders, explained what is censored and how information is still being transmitted:
Des coupures nettes d'internet se sont produites le 29, le 30 août et celle du 1er septembre. Nous avons été en contact avec des organisations de la société civile pour leur transmettre des outils qui permettent de contourner cette censure. Nous collaborons avec de nombreuses organisations internationales qui ont mis en place des tutoriels très simples pour mettre en place ces outils. Donc ça fonctionne quand même. Malheureusement, ce n'est pas toute la population gabonaise qui peut les utiliser. Ce sont seulement des comptes (des internautes, ndlr) qui ont un peu plus de connaissances technologiques, techniques, qui sont catalyseurs de tous les contenus qui sortent du Gabon. Donc aujourd'hui, c'est avec ces comptes-là que nous sommes en communication
Internet outages were observed on the 29th and 30th of August and the 1st of September. We have been in contact with civil society organizations to train them in using tools to circumvent internet censorship. We are working with many international organizations that have implemented simple tutorials to develop these tools. So the internet still works. Unfortunately, not all Gabonese people can use them [the tools]. So far, only users who have in-depth technical knowledge can use them and therefore they are the catalysts for all content coming out of Gabon. So today, it is with some of these accounts that we are in communication.
Clashes are still underway in some cities and the country seems destined to be stuck in a political quagmire for a little while.