Gabon’s 2016 Presidential Election: A Source of Domestic Instability?

Gabon, located in Western Africa, has been a relatively stable country since independence in 1960. As a former France colony, Gabon maintains its close ties with France under the system named “Francafrique”. As BBC’s “Gabon country profile” explains, Gabon receives political and military support from France in exchange for business favours.

Gabon has had only three presidents since its independence. Former President Omar Bongo ruled the country for 42 years until his death in 2009. The power transition system in Gabon changed from one-party rule to a multi-party election system during Omar Bongo’s presidency. However, Omar Bongo’s Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) retained the political power and was unchallengeable.

A presidential election was held in 2009 in light of the death of Omar Bongo. Ali Bongo Ondimba, the son of Omar Bongo and the candidate of the PDG, announced to participate in the election. According to the official announcement on the 3rd September 2009, Ali Bongo won the election with 41.73 percent of the vote.

As a country with the absolute majority voting rule, the election result seems to be legitimate. Oddly enough, tensions mounted even before the official announcement of the presidential election result. As reported by CNN, security forces were deployed on the streets in Gabon’s capital in case of the post-election violence. Nevertheless, tensions escalated into violence between the opposition supporters and the security forces shortly after the official announcement. According to CNN, the voters do not trust the result of the election because it was not transparent. Indeed, some international organisations, such as the European Union (EU), also question the transparency of Gabon’s presidential election because the government closed channels for external observers to monitor the election.

President Ali Bongo’s legitimacy was further diminished between 2009 and 2016 due to the tension in domestic wealth distribution. Although Gabon is a relatively richer country with abundant oil resources, one-third of the total population still lives under the poverty line. The opposition supporters argue that the Bongo family has extracted Gabon’s wealth for personal enjoyment. In light of the global oil price fluctuation, the tension of domestic wealth distribution in Gabon is likely to be intensified.

Jean Ping steps up as a credible contender for the incumbent president Ali Bongo in the 2016 presidential election. Ping had served as a diplomat and the head of the African Union Commission in his political career. He gained popularity based on his political career and grassroots’ desire of change. Backed by strong popular support, Ping declared victory of the 2016 presidential election and called the incumbent president Ali Bongo to “acknowledge his defeat.” Paradoxically, the incumbent president Ali Bongo announced victory shortly after Ping’s announcement. Gabon’s domestic stability, again, faces challenges.

The incumbent president Ali Bongo was officially announced as the winner of the election. According to the Guardian’s report, Bongo won the election with 49.80 percent of the vote against Ping’s 48.23 percent of the vote. Opposition supporters and security forces clashed in Libreville shortly after the official announcement. The Guardian reported that three people were killed by the security forces and many wounded. Residents in Libreville have prepared to flee out of the city or have stored foods to stay away from the post-election violence.

Gabon is likely to experience domestic instability if the Bongo family remains in power. The Bongo’s legitimacy is under challenge because of their prolonged rules and the unequal distribution of national wealth. However, as long as the Bongos control the government, it is unlikely to see a transparent presidential election. In this case, international observers, namely France and the EU, should exercise their leverage over Gabon to monitor the presidential election. The external parties should also persuade Gabon’s domestic parties to de-escalate the tensions in the post-election period.