Gabon crisis underscores region's democratic challenge

African Union Commission chairman Jean Ping arrives for the 18th African Union (AU) Summit in the Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, January 29, 2012.
African Union Commission chairman Jean Ping arrives for the 18th African Union (AU) Summit in the Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, January 29, 2012. REUTERS/Noor Khamis/File Photo

Gabon's election stalemate continued on Thursday, as the opposition lodged an appeal to the constitutional court over last month's presidential polls. The disputed reelection of President Ali Bongo has sparked riots that have killed at least six people. It's a scenario that has been replicated in other countries on the continent.


When the results of Gabon's presidential elections were announced on August 31 -- declaring Ali Bongo the winner by a small victory -- many citizens held their breath.

Instead of providing relief, the verdict confirmed their worst fears: a prolonged conflict and more violence.

"Clashes between rival supporters and security forces is creating a climate of insecurity that we can no longer tolerate," Théophane Nzame-Biyoghe, a member of civil society group African Youth Movement, wrote in an impromptu letter after riots erupted.

At least six people have been killed since the crisis began, attracting the world's attention to the small west African nation of fewer than two million inhabitants.

"What's happening in Gabon is really not unusual," Gilles Yabi, founder of the West Africa Citizen Think Tank, WATHI, told RFI on Thursday.

"Almost all other countries in Central Africa are facing the same challenges of lack of real democratic progress and a real difficulty to have an alternation of power."

Elections in Congo Brazzaville and Chad have all seen long-serving leaders Denis Sassou-Nguesso and Idris Deby re-elected to the helm, just as president Ali Bongo looks set to be, despite his family's almost 5-decade rule.

The opposition doesn't believe that turnout in Bongo's home province of Haute-Ogooué was 99.3%.

Court dilemma

Jean Ping claims he won six out of the country's nine provinces and has called for a recount of the votes. Gabonese authorities argue this would violate the law.

That leaves the opposition with few options: either go to the constitutional court or air their grievances out on the streets.

"We are concerned that the constitutional court is always supporting Ali Bongo," Alexandre Barro Chambrier, a supporter of Jean Ping, and president of the party Heritage et Modernité, told RFI by phone from Libreville.

A point of view shared by Gilles Yabi: "There is no confidence at all in the capacity of the constitutional court to examine the reality of the evidence and decide for example that the results announced were not real results."

There's little confidence also in the mediation efforts of the African Union.

Chad's President Idriss Deby, who currently holds the chair of the pan-African body, had been slated to visit Gabon this week, before a last minute cancellation.

African Union handicap

But Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell, doesn't think Deby is credible: "The African Union is not a reformist organization," the Executive Director of the Policy Centre for African People, told RFI by phone from London.

"It's full of dictators and full of people who are more interested in the status quo."

She is scathing on the role of former chairman of the African Commission Jean Ping: "He could have used his influence to propose proper reforms!"

Aboa-Bradwell says Ping is paying the price now for his inaction during his tenure at the AU to speak out against dodgy polls and his validation of autocratic rulers.

So, where next for democracy?

"We have a lot of progress to make," reckons Gilles Yabi, "to ensure that elections are well organized and that there is no manipulation."

For Aboa-Bradwell, what is needed is a "clear and honest conversation of the people who have been the elite for so many decades to say we need to educate a new generation and put the priority of the people first, and then number two, seek the national interest above everything."

For Gabon's opposition, "the battle is to try and get leaders to respect term limits" says Alexandre Barro Chambrier, a supporter of Jean Ping.

However the situation in Gabon pans out, it will be closely watched on the African continent. What happens there will serve as a litmus test for how far the region has come for democracy.

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