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Gabon: High Demand for Democracy, Short Supply

AfricaFocus Bulletin
September 14, 2016 (160914)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"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 politics.

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 ( 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 for more background and to contribute through paypal).

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

For up-to-date news coverage and analysis, see (in English)
and (in French), and particularly (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. Go to

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 minutes and

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 - direct URL:

The country's democratic credentials have been deeply wounded by dodgy official results, protest riots and a brutal government crackdown.

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.

Contested results

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.

Changed times

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 establishment.

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

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 countries.

The new report, titled "Election quality, public trust are central issues as African nations look toward next contests," will be available at

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" fair.
  • 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 of 43%.
  • 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 (79%).


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% confidence level.

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, visit

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 October 2015.

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

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 military rule.
  • 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 (63%).
  • 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 (75%).

[for full report, including figures and additional findings, visit

Gabon: Jean Ping and the boy who didn't cry wolf

Simon Allison

Daily Maverick, 6 September, 2016 - 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 stayed silent.

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 been eaten.

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 outspoken.

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 - Direct URL:

"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

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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