The tiny African nation of Gabon has generated big headlines since last week’s contested elections turned ugly. So, what’s left to say?
Asked what the world’s media had missed, one former US diplomat told us in a word: “Everything”.
Here’s what the papers have told us about the presidential vote on Aug. 27 and its immediate violent aftermath: Incumbent President Ali Bongo was declared the winner by a margin of less than 6,000 votes in a nation of 1.7 million; opposition leader Jean Ping refused to accept the result on the basis that the vote was rigged; international stakeholders have unsuccessfully demanded a recount; violence has broken out in major cities, meeting with a heavy-handed response from the state.
By and large, these events have been narrated as a struggle between the strongman-monarch, Bongo – the son of Africa’s longest serving leader – and the upstart democrat, Jean Ping. Yet, rather than a clash between dynasty and democracy, the current impasse should be seen as an attempt to return Gabon to pre-Ali Bongo days by capitalising on popular discontent with the current regime.
New Bongo Vs. Old
Although opposition leader Jean Ping has gone to great lengths to portray himself as the champion of a new democratic movement sweeping Gabon, this can’t be taken at face value. Ping was a powerful figure in the regime of Omar Bongo, serving in various ministerial positions from 1990 until he became head of the African Union Commission in 2008.
As a close collaborator with the former president, Ping was central to the patronage networks that kept the old Bongo regime going and his candidacy has become a vehicle for the restitution of these old networks.
Yet Ali Bongo has been playing into the opposition’s hands. Ping has reached far beyond the aspirations of a small friendly business elite. The opposition candidacy has been supported by popular discontent with the lack of economic opportunity.
While this disenchantment reaches back to a time well before Ali Bongo first became President, it has been exacerbated by his perceived failure to address matters during his first term, not to mention the generalised deterioration in economic conditions brought on by the fall in oil prices.
Legitimate complaints about the achievements of his presidency and suspicions about the conduct of elections have only been made worse by Bongo’s decision to shut down the internet – partially re- established since.
Although it’s likely that the conduct of the election was highly irregular, the cheating was on both sides.
Anticipating international response
Historically, Gabon’s most important international partnerships have been with the US and France. But neither country is now in a position to take a particularly strong line.
US influence is limited by the fact that it trades little with Gabon and provides the country with zero aid. Relations with France have been lukewarm at best under Ali Bongo, and recent interventions have already been branded as a throw-back to Franc-Afrique. Although some French businesses probably preferred the operating environment under Bongo Senior, President Hollande is unlikely to stand up for them.
China’s involvement in Gabon, on the other hand, is both more recent – and more complex. Although it has several investments in the extractive sector and elsewhere, China will be cautious about its perceived links to Jean Ping, whose father was Chinese and who has often himself been seen as a front man for, and possible beneficiary of, Chinese investment inflows into Gabon. It’s unlikely that China would want to be associated with any overt political interference.
Chinese Investment in Gabon
|Dec-08||China Communications Construction||200||Transport/Autos|
|Oct-12||China Communications Construction||660||Transport/Autos|
|May-13||China Communications Construction||120||Transport/Shipping|
Source: China Global Investment Tracker, American Enterprise Institute & The Heritage Foundation
*Classified as “troubled transactions”
With Gabon’s biggest bilateral partners all on the sidelines for different reasons, the strongest call for action will probably come from the United Nations. But Gabon has long punched above its weight in the UN. Jean Ping was President of the General Assembly from 2004-5, and Bongo is most likely keen to protect the reputation his country has built.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s interventions were probably influential in the partial lifting of the communications blackout and Jean Ping’s call for his supporters to end violence. Yet whether these connections will prove sufficient for a “transparent verification” of electoral results, including a release of poll-by-poll data, is still to be seen.
Whatever the case, the decisive factor in the outcome of the current impasse will be the attitude of the security forces – and they remain loyal to Bongo. It’s worth remembering that Bongo served as defense minister for nearly a decade before he became President, during which time he installed allies in the various security forces including the Republican Guard, and reportedly worked to centralize reporting directly to him.
Ultimately, the only body capable of reversing the electoral result, or even releasing the polling results, is the Constitutional Court, which most observers testify is far from being an independent voice. Therefore Ping, with neither the domestic powers of incumbency nor committed international backing, is unlikely to be in a position to enforce his claims, even if he was theoretically the winner of elections.
The markets are already pricing in a gradual normalization of political conditions in Gabon. The nation’s bonds due in 2024 and 2025, down over three points from pre-election levels, will probably continue to recover as fears of further violence subside.
To hear more from Exotix Partners’ economist Alan Cameron, listen to the show here: