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Gabon: High Demand for Democracy, Short Supply
September 14, 2016 (160914)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
"Among 36 African countries surveyed in 2014/2015, Gabon ranks at or
near the bottom on every indicator of election quality and fairness,
according to citizen responses collected in September and October 2015.
... Gabon ranks dead last in public trust in the election commission.
... [at the same time] Gabon ranks near the top in favoring multiparty
competition and term limits on presidents, as well as in disapproving of one-party and one-man
rule." - Afrobarometer
Election observers agree that the narrow victory for incumbent President
Ali Bongo in last month's presidential election was almost certainly
the result of fraud. Yet his opponent, Jean Ping, is also a longstanding
member of the country's elite, and is reportedly the father
of two children with the president's half-sister. Ping's support is
based largely on the fact that he is not a member of the Bongo
family, which has been in power since 1967, when Omar Bongo, Ali's
father, came to power. The regime in this small oil-producing
country has been notorious for corruption, and for its close links
to the power structure in France, with Omar Bongo reportedly himself
a major influence for decades as a donor in French national
Ali Bongo has diversified international ties since taking office in
2009, reaching out to the United States and China. But France
remains Gabon's dominant external partner, intricately intertwined
with both economic and political structures in the country.
For a short overview, see in particular "Gabon's Bongo Family:
Living In Luxury, Paid For By Corruption And Embezzlement,"
International Business Times, February 15, 2013 (http://tinyurl.com/zordjcq). For more background, see the links
listed at the end of this Bulletin.
Gabon, like other Francophone African countries, is not well-known
to most English-speaking readers. But increasingly, the range of
sources available in English as well as French makes it possible to
access basic sources for both news and analysis.
This AfricaFocus Bulletin, focused on the current situation.
contains two short articles, from Chatham House in London and The
Daily Maverick in South Africa, and press releases from extensive
polling research by Afrobarometer (Everyone concerned about reliable
information on African public opinion should note that Afrobarometer
is currently experiencing a fiscal crisis, and its extraordinarily
useful and revealing research in more than 35 African countries is
threatened with cutbacks from donors, including USAID. Go to
http://www.afrobarometer.org for more background and to contribute
The Afrobarometer studies on Gabon reveal strong support for
democracy among Gabonese voters, but intense skepticism about the
capacity of the system to deliver. Political commentators agree that
significant reforms are highly unlikely, but there is no consensus
on the likely outcome of the dispute over the election results.
For the reader who has the time and internet bandwith to watch,
AfricaFocus highly recommends the Youtube playlist of the four
videos listed at the beginning of this Bulletin (To go directly to
the playlist, click on http://tinyurl.com/zollum3)
For up-to-date news coverage and analysis, see
http://allafrica.com/gabon (in English)
and http://fr.allafrica.com/gabon (in French), and particularly
http://www.lemonde.fr/gabon/ (in French)
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Gabon, visit
Announcement: New Resources on Illicit Financial Flows
Newly available on website of US-Africa Network - new resources on
Illicit Financial Flows and the Stop the Bleeding Africa campaign.
Thanks to Chris Root and Anita Plummer of the US-Africa Network for
preparing and sharing these resources, including "Top 10 Questions
About Illicit Financial Flows and Africa" and a carefully selected
and annotated "Resources about Illicit Financial Flows from Africa."
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++
Youtube Playlist with recent videos on the situation in Gabon
France 24, September 7, 2016 - part 1, 18 minutes & part 2 - 26
London Business School, November 11, 2015, "My Two Years Working for
the Government of Gabon" - 22 minutes
Anonymous, September 12, 2016 - 6 minutes
Anonymous, June 13, 2013 - 4 minutes
Electoral Chaos Leaves Gabon in a State of Uncertainty
Paul Melly, Associate Fellow, Africa Programme, Chatham House
Chatham House, 7 September 2016
https://www.chathamhouse.org/ - direct URL:
The country's democratic credentials have been deeply wounded by
dodgy official results, protest riots and a brutal government
Gabon's model of political moderation and gradualist reform may have
just imploded. Without external mediation, a full audit of polling
station results and a hitherto absent readiness to compromise on the
part of President Ali Bongo Ondimba and his main challenger, Jean
Ping, the country risks being condemned to months or even years of
unstable and sullen post-election stalemate.
Mild though the crisis appears by the standards of more
authoritarian or conflict-torn neighbours, it is disastrously
damaging for Bongo's long-held ambition of transforming himself from
dynastic heir into freely-elected architect of modernization and
reform. After seven years trying to mark his country out from the
fiefdoms of central Africa's strongmen, he now risks cantoning
himself into the category of presidents whose hold on office depends
on power rather than consent.
Official results for the 27 August presidential election gave Bongo
49.8% of the nationwide total, compared with 48.23% for Ping; two
candidates pulled out to leave Ping a clear run, while the minor
players who stayed in the race got trivial scores.
The final winning margin was just 5,594 votes. After severe defeats
for Bongo in western urban centres such as Libreville and Port
Gentil and with national average turnout at 59%, Bongo was
miraculously saved by results from his Haut Ogooué heartland, which
registered 95% support on a reported 99% turnout. In the context of
a highly secretive electoral system, such an outcome threatens to
fundamentally undermine Gabon's democratic ambitions.
Yet the aftermath has been even more damaging. Furious protesters
rioted, setting light to the national assembly, other public
buildings and the shops of West African traders - a longstanding
target of popular resentment.
The government's response has been uncompromising. During the night
of 31 August-1 September, security force units, supposedly searching
for rioters, took control of Ping's campaign headquarters. There
were several deaths, while a number of casualties were taken to
hospital with gunshot wounds; dozens were arrested, and senior
opposition figures were still in the building, surrounded by
security forces, a day later.
Gabon, so often a broker in other nations' disputes, now finds
itself being offered African Union crisis mediation. The justice
minister has resigned from both government and ruling party,
demanding a full audit of all the election counts, polling station
by polling station.
Bongo's failed strategy
The violence is a tragedy for Gabon. Street protest is hardly new
but is usually curbed with routine policing and the odd volley of
tear gas. Moreover, this bloodshed represents a major failure for
Bongo's leadership. He came to power in 2009 after the death of his
father, Omar Bongo Ondimba, who had ruled for four decades, in
elections that were opaque and widely seen as a continuation of the
status quo. His subsequent banning of the new Union Nationale
opposition party seemed to confirm this pattern.
But Ali has spent much of the past seven years trying to reshape
Gabon's governance. He has sought to rebalance and diversify the
economy, improve the performance of the state and foster a more
equitable social model, tilting social services and public sector
wage structures towards the poorer citizens who had previously been
neglected in favour of the governing middle class. Key barons of his
father's regime were marginalized, the ban on the Union Nationale
was lifted, and Bongo acceded to opposition demands for a biometric
electoral roll. Assets in France held personally by the Bongo family
were transferred to the ownership of the state.
Bongo had hoped that his measures to stimulate the economy and
protect the environment, bolster the efficiency of public services
and help the poor would allow him to shed his image as the inheritor
of dynastic power, and earn his own legitimacy through his own
performance as president. In the face of an opposition dominated by
the ancien regime power-brokers who he had forced out, Ali sought to
present himself as the real incarnation of change.
But several factors combined to undermine this strategy. The
influence of several prominent West Africans in the presidency and
in business circles close to the government was unpopular with many
locals. Like other oil producing countries, Gabon has been hit hard
by the collapse in world energy prices, despite its care in
nurturing a reputation as a prudent borrower in international bond
markets. And ultimately, Bongo under-estimated the scale of anger
and impatience for change in a country whose voters are well aware
of democracy's advance elsewhere in francophone Africa - powerfully
symbolized by the popular revolution that felled Burkina Faso
strongman Blaise Compaoré in 2014.
Many Gabonese feel it is now time to move on from the era of
dynastic rule, even in the refreshed and more modern form that Ali
Bongo Ondimba has provided.
Bongo seems to have been completely unprepared for the strength of
the response to the electoral pitch made by Jean Ping. As a former
regime veteran once married to Ali's sister Pascaline, Ping could
not claim to be a new face. Indeed, having also served a term as
chair of the African Union Commission, he is very much part of the
But he cleverly tapped into the current mood, presenting himself as
the man whose election would show that power in Gabon really could
change hands through the ballot box. A promise to serve only one
term enhanced this appeal - and usefully contrasted with Ali's
aspiration to yet another extension of rule by the Bongo dynasty.
When most other opposition candidates dropped out at the last
minute, Ping was ideally placed to capitalize.
Furthermore, in the aftermath, Bongo has badly misread the evolution
of attitudes in the international community: France, the EU and the
US want to see a transparent and credible election process. Even
Paris, for so many years a supportive ally of the Bongos, is no
longer prepared to turn a blind eye. As a result, pressure is
mounting for a full breakdown of the vote, to show figures for every
single polling station. Privately, many diplomats feel it is clear
that Ping won, even if there was cheating on all sides.
Looking ahead, there seems no easy way out. The most consensual
option would be a full audit of the election count, with both
contenders fully committed to accepting the eventual result - a
course of action that would offer a face saving and honourable way
out to the loser. Without that, Gabon seems condemned to a prolonged
period of unrest and political confrontation. Even if Bongo hangs
on, his standing will be critically damaged.
Afrobarometer Reports on Gabon
In Gabon, overwhelming public distrust of CENAP and election quality
forms backdrop for presidential vote dispute
News Release, 1 September 2016
For full news release, as well as Afrobarometer report released on
September 6, visit http://afrobarometer.org/countries/gabon-0
Gabon's presidential election dispute is playing out against a
background of overwhelming public distrust of the national election
commission (CENAP) and strikingly negative assessments of the
country's election environment in advance of the August 2016 vote, a
new analysis by Afrobarometer shows.
Among 36 African countries surveyed in 2014/2015, Gabon ranks at or
near the bottom on every indicator of election quality and fairness,
according to citizen responses collected in September and October 2015.
Gabon ranks dead last in public trust in the election commission: A
majority (51%) of citizens said they do not trust the CENAP "at
all," and only 8% said they trust the commission "a lot."
Gabon also ranks among the worst in citizens' perceptions of the
fairness of the vote count, the freeness and fairness of its
previous national election (2011), fear of voter intimidation or
violence, fair treatment of opposition candidates, and the
prevalence of voter bribery. Overall, Gabon citizens held the most
negative perceptions of how well elections function to ensure that
voters' views are represented and to enable voters to remove leaders
who don't do what the people want.
The Gabon findings are part of a new Afrobarometer report, to be
released 6 September 2016, on citizens' perceptions of electoral
management institutions and the quality of elections, It is based on almost 54,000 interviews in 36 African
The new report, titled "Election quality, public trust are central
issues as African nations look toward next contests," will be
available at http://www.afrobarometer.org.
Key findings for Gabon
- A majority (51%) of Gabonese respondents said in late 2015 that
they do not trust the CENAP "at all," with 17% who trust it
"somewhat," 24% "a little bit," and only 8% "a lot" (Figure 1).
Among 36 African countries surveyed in 2014/2015, Gabon ranks last
in public trust in the election commission (Figure 2).
- Only 37% of citizens saw their 2011 election as having been
"completely free and fair" or "free and fair, but with minor
problems." A majority said the 2011 election was "not free and fair"
(31%) or "free and fair, with major problems" (24%) (Figure 3).
- On perceptions of the election environment (Figure 4), seven in 10
Gabonese citizens (71%) said that votes are "never" or only
"sometimes" counted fairly. Only 15% said the vote count is "always"
- Almost two-thirds (64%) of Gabonese said they fear campaignrelated
intimidation or violence at least "a little bit," including
almost one-fourth (23%) who expressed "a lot" of fear. One-third
(32%) said voters are "often" or "always" threatened with violence
at the polls.
- A majority (56%) of citizens said that opposition candidates are
at least "sometimes" prevented from running for office. One in five
(22%) said this happens "often" or "always."
- Three-fourths (77%) of Gabonese said the news media "never" or
only "sometimes" provides fair coverage of all candidates - the
worst rating among the 36 surveyed countries.
- *Seven in 10 citizens (71%) said that voters are "often" or "always"
bribed during Gabon's elections - far above the 36-country average
- Gabon ranks worst among 36 African countries in citizens'
perceptions of how well elections work. More than three-fourths of
Gabonese say elections perform "not very well" or "not at all well"
to ensure that elected officials reflect the views of voters (76%)
or to enable voters to remove underperforming leaders from office
Afrobarometer is a pan-African, non-partisan research network that
conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic
conditions, and related issues across more than 30 countries in
Africa. Five rounds of surveys were conducted between 1999 and 2013,
and findings from Round 6 surveys (2014/2015) are currently being
released. Afrobarometer conducts face-to-face interviews in the
language of the respondent's choice with nationally representative
samples that yield country-level results with margins of error of
+/-2% (for samples of 2,400) or +/3% (for samples of 1,200) at a 95%
The Afrobarometer team in Gabon, led by the Centre de Recherche en
Géoscience Politique et Prospective (CERGEP), interviewed 1,200
adult Gabonese citizens in September and October 2015. A sample of
this size yields country-level results with a margin of error of
+/-3% at a 95% confidence level. This was the first Afrobarometer
survey in Gabon.
Behind Gabon's election dispute, citizens strongly support
multiparty democracy, reject autocratic alternatives
News Release, 2 September, 2016
For full news release, including figures and additional findings,
Behind Gabon's eruption in post-election conflict, its citizens are
among the strongest in Africa in their support for multiparty
democracy and their rejection of non-democratic alternatives, a new
analysis by Afrobarometer shows.
Among 36 African countries surveyed in 2014/2015, Gabon ranks near
the top in favouring multiparty competition and term limits on
presidents, as well as in disapproving of one-party and one-man
rule, according to citizen responses collected in September and
Large majorities also expressed support for democracy in general and
for elections as the best way to choose leaders, although on these
issues Gabon ranks only average or below. Gabon's less enthusiastic
endorsement of elections aligns with citizens' strikingly negative
views on the national electoral commission (CENAP) and the fairness
of the country's elections (see press release titled "In Gabon,
overwhelming public distrust of CENAP and election quality forms
backdrop for presidential vote dispute" at www.afrobarometer.org).
Findings on citizens' perceptions of electoral management
institutions and the quality of elections in Gabon and 35 other
African countries will be released in a new Afrobarometer report on
6 September 2016.
Key findings for Gabon
In interviews in September-October 2015, two-thirds (68%) of
Gabonese citizens said democracy is preferable to any other
political system, matching average support for democracy among 36
African surveyed in 2014/2015 (67%).
- Gabonese overwhelmingly rejected autocratic alternatives to
democracy. Nine in 10 citizens disapproved of one-party rule (91%)
and one-man rule (89%), including majorities who "strongly"
disapproved (Figure 1). These assessments place Gabon near the top
among surveyed countries. Seven in 10 Gabonese (70%) rejected
- Three-fourths (76%) said regular, open, and honest elections are
the best way to choose leaders, compared to 82% across all surveyed
countries (Figure 2).
- In their support for multiparty competition (80%) (Figure 3),
Gabonese are second only to Ivoirians (82%) and far above average
- Nine in 10 Gabonese (92%) supported limiting presidents to two
terms in office (Figure 4). Gabon's support for term limits is
second only to Benin's (93%) and well above the 36-country average
[for full report, including figures and additional findings, visit
Gabon: Jean Ping and the boy who didn't cry wolf
Daily Maverick, 6 September, 2016
http://www.dailymaverick.co.za - Direct URL:
Opposition leader Jean Ping is incensed that Gabon's president stole
the recent election. He's right to be. But maybe Ping should have
harnessed this fury earlier, when he was in a position to do
something about it. Instead, as top boss of the African Union, he
helped to legitimise dodgy polls and obscure accountability. Now he,
and Gabon, are paying the price.
Let me tell you the parable of the boy who didn't cry wolf. One day,
in an African country of your choice, a wolf passed through the
village. Observing from afar, the boy said nothing, and called no
one, even as the wolf feasted. The next day, the wolf came to
another village. Again the boy saw, again the boy ignored the
tortured shouts of the villagers as they screamed and begged for
help. And so it went on, village by village, as the wolf devoured
his way through the continent; instead of raising the alarm, the boy
And then the wolf came to Gabon, where the boy lived, and started
snapping its jaws in his direction. The boy screamed and shouted and
cried "wolf!" at the top of his lungs, but by then it was too late.
Everyone around him, everyone who could have helped, had already
The real-life star of this little story is Jean Ping, opposition
candidate for president in Gabon.
Ping is not a happy man right now. Last week, he lost the
presidential election by the slimmest of margins - just 6,000 votes
- and he believes the poll was rigged. "The whole world knows today
who is the president of the Republic of Gabon. It's me, Jean Ping,"
he said. "Each time the Gabonese people have chosen their president,
the dark forces are always gathered to place he who was not chosen
as head of state."
Ping is right, of course. These elections were stolen, and brazenly
so. Despite an average turnout of around 60%, an unbelievable 99.3%
was recorded in Haute Ogue, home province of incumbent Ali Bongo -
with Bongo winning 95% of the vote there. That statistically
impossible aberration made all the difference to the final count.
Ping has rejected the outcome, and is pursuing a legal challenge.
Meanwhile, an estimated 5 people have died in post-election violence
between rival supporters and security forces.
Bongo's security forces may have pulled the trigger, but their blood
is also on Ping's hands.
Ping, you see, was not always an opposition candidate. He wasn't
always an outspoken advocate for free and fair elections. He wasn't
always a fierce critic of dictators and police brutality.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
Although memories fade fast, we must not forget that it was only
four years ago that Ping was forced out of his position as chairman
of the African Union Commission. Between 2008 and 2012, he was the
continental body's most senior and visible leader.
In this position, he oversaw and monitored elections all over
Africa: polls both free and flawed, and everything in between. But
instead of raising the alarm when something was wrong - instead of
crying wolf - Ping legitimised dodgy polls and obscured
accountability. The very same tactics that Bongo is now using
against him, Ping previously would rubber-stamp.
Take, for example, the Sudanese elections in 2010, in which
President Omar al-Bashir - then and still wanted for war crimes by
the International Criminal Court - strolled to victory in a vote
marred by intimidation, gerrymandering, and accusations of "massive
rigging" by an opposition group. Ping, who headed the African Union
observer mission, had a more generous take:
"These historic elections have indeed afforded the majority of the
Sudanese citizens the opportunity to exercise their civic and
democratic rights by electing representatives of their choice for
the first time in 24 years. The mission believes that the justconcluded
multiparty elections will enhance the peace and democratic
processes under way in the country."
It also fell to Ping, early in his term, to lead the African
response to Zimbabwe's tightly contested election in 2008. In the
first round, challenger Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic
Change led Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF. A state-sponsored campaign of
violence and intimidation forced Tsvangirai to withdraw from the
second round of the vote, which he was on course to win.
While the AU was involved in mediating the Zimbabwe situation, its
solution allowed Robert Mugabe - architect of the brutality- to stay
in charge as part of a government of national unity. Ping refrained
from condemning the violence, and downplayed the extent of the
crisis. A reading of the AU's observer mission statement, following
Mugabe's uncontested second-round victory, noted vaguely that "there
was violence in the run down to the elections", but failed to
attribute blame; a neat diplomatic side-step that helped Mugabe's
regime avoid responsibility.
As leader of the African Union Commission, Ping repeatedly failed to
enforce international electoral standards, or hold African
governments to account for human rights abuses. This is not a unique
failing; a general reticence to criticise is a characteristics of
the AU, and Ping's successor Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is also rarely
But now Ping finds himself on the other side of the fence. Suddenly,
he is on the receiving end of a rigged vote and electoral violence;
suddenly, he wants those international standards enforced and human
rights observed. If only he had defended these virtues earlier, when
he was in a position of influence and could have made a real difference. If only Ping had
cried wolf before it was too late. DM
Links to additional articles recommended
"Gabon's presidential election: are the opposition’s attempts at
unifying too little too late?," by Oumar Ba
African Arguments, August 22, 2016
"Gabon is in chaos — and France is to blame," Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry,
The Week, September 2, 2016
"Meet Ali Bongo Ondimba, Obama's Man in Africa," by Siobhán O'Grady,
Foreign Policy, April 5, 2016
http://foreignpolicy.com - Direct URL: http://tinyurl.com/j2cjv7h
"The murky world of Omar Bongo," BBC, May 21, 2009
"A fight inside Gabon's kleptocratic dynasty exposes the complicity
of French business," Emma-Kate Symons, May 01, 2015
"Keeping Foreign Corruption Out of the United States: Four Case
Histories: Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations,"
September, 2010 - one of the case histories is President Omar Bongo
of Gabon - for a brief summary see http://www.africafocus.org/docs10/usa1002.php
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