Lessons from Cote d’Ivoire

It is difficult to read the postelection crisis in Gabon without flashing back a few years, to Cote d’Ivoire in 2010. The similarities between the two countries are hard to ignore. In Gabon’s ongoing post-electoral confusion, Ali Bongo’s followers are accusing the international community of electing Jean Ping to the presidency in exactly the same manner as Laurent Gbagbo’s allies accused the international community of ‘electing’ Alassane Ouattara.

Ali Bongo’s allies are opposing any international military intervention ahead of an anticipated Constitutional Court decision on the disputed elections and odds are certain that the ruling will favour the incumbent. A similar warning was issued by Gbagbo’s followers, most vociferously by his erstwhile youth leader Blé Goudé, who is standing trial at the ICC in connection with the 2010 post-electoral riots, which culminated in 3 000 deaths and scores more injured.

Last week, Jean Ping filed a petition with the Constitutional Court over a rigged plebiscite and the verdict is feverishly being awaited by both parties this week. That ruling is certainly going to be a watershed decision that could either appease or blow up the already tense situation in Gabon, as happened in Cote d’Ivoire.

In the advent of a favourable decision for Ali Bongo, it is not hard to imagine protests from the Jean Ping camp leading to a complete breakdown of law and order. Sources close to the French embassy in Libreville have intimated that an exit plan has already been designed to provide safe passage to an undisclosed destination for Ping and a few of his allies to save them from potential attacks.

While awaiting the court’s decision this week, Jean Ping continues to claim victory, saying, “The whole world knows that I’m the president of Gabon.”

Jean Ping garnered an impressive number of votes in virtually all constituencies and was optimistic of making great inroads into Bongo’s mainstay. He is contesting Bongo’s declared 99,9% victory in his home province of Haut Ogooué, which earned him a razor-thin edge of about 6 000 votes over his main rival.

International poll observer missions were unanimous in declaring that several anomalies had marred the transparent conduct of the poll and recommended a recount in the disputed bastion of President Bongo.

The country’s electoral commission on 30 August 2016 declared President Ali Bongo the winner and re-elected him for a second seven-year term with 49,8% of the vote. Jean Ping, however, insists that President Bongo rigged the election and that a repeat of the 2009 episode, when President Bongo robbed the Gabonese people of their legitimate right to elect a president, will not happen again.

A funeral procession for Axel Messa, killed in Gabon's post-election protests, passes through the Libreville district of Nzeng Ayong on September 2, 2016 (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

A funeral procession for Axel Messa, killed in Gabon’s post-election protests, passes through the Libreville district of Nzeng Ayong on September 2, 2016 (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

A country on edge

Jean Ping told foreign reporters that troops of the Gabonese army had been deployed in strategic parts of the capital and elsewhere in the country – this even after Ali Bongo had hinted that a recount could be possible. This suggestion is deemed by many in Jean Ping’s camp as being ‘cosmetic’; an act of playing to the gallery, hence the petition to the Constitutional Court.

In the capital, the national assembly building was set on fire and a leading private television, Bethlehem TV, was torched by disgruntled protestors when the poll results were first declared.

To date, both men continue to trade accusations over the cause of the deaths of civilians in the aftermath of the 27 August poll. According to the government, only three people have died so far, while the Jean Ping camp insists that the figure should be at seven or more.

Jean Ping led a memorial service for those killed during the turmoil that followed a civil disobedience march. Riot police fired teargas and live bullets into the crowd of opposition protestors, killing two and injuring several others. Hundreds of protestors were arrested, detained and subsequently released, while some families still continue to search for missing members.

Humanitarian organisations say thousands of Gabon’s estimated 1,802 million inhabitants were trekking out of the country to neighbouring Cameroon.

The Secretary General of the International Organisation of the Francophonie (OIF), Michaëlle Jean, has described the post-election situation in Gabon as “serious and extremely worrisome”. While all this is happening, the high-powered African Union (AU) mission expected to head to Gabon to mediate the crisis has been postponed without much explanation or an indication of when the mediation will begin, if at all.

For his part, the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, has been speaking on the phone to Jean Ping and Ali Bongo, urging them to exercise restraint following the outburst of violence over the contested poll results.

Ahead of Ban Ki-Moon’s call for restraint, his special representative to the Central Africa region, Professor Abdoulaye Bathily of Senegal, had appealed in vain to President Bongo’s government to encourage an all-inclusive dialogue ahead of the polls.

The Central Africa region, which includes the countries Chad, Cameroon, Congo, Central Africa Republic, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and São Tomé and Príncipe, is the most undemocratic on the continent. With the exception of São Tomé and Príncipe, all of the countries in the region have not changed leadership in decades. Teodore Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea is Africa’s longest-serving president, having seized power from his uncle in 1979. For Gabon, however, a different future may be on the horizon – but we will have to wait and see.