Parliament Set Ablaze, Three Dead As Violent Protests Erupt In Gabon
Clashes between opposition supporters and security forces broke out in the capital of Gabon on Wednesday after Ali Bongo, the incumbent president, was controversially declared the winner of Saturday’s election, extending the rule of one of Africa’s longest political dynasties to more than 50 years.
Three people were apparently shot dead by security forces and many more wounded after crowds tried to storm the offices of the electoral commission in Libreville shortly after authorities announced Bongo’s re-election by a narrow majority.
There were reports that protesters had set fire to part of Gabon’s parliament building. A witness told Reuters that demonstrators entering from the back of the National Assembly started the blaze and firefighters were trying to extinguish it.
Bongo won 49.80% of the vote against 48.23% for his rival, Jean Ping, adding another seven years to his family’s half-century rule of the central African country. The announcement of the result was repeatedly delayed, and opposition supporters on Wednesday cried foul over what they claimed were voting irregularities in at least one of the country’s nine provinces.
Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo, ruled the country for more than 40 years, squandering much of its vast oil wealth and hiding it overseas rather than using it to lift its people out of poverty. Bongo Junior, as Ali is known, has tried to distance himself from the sins of his father, but the apparent manipulation of the vote in at least one province has attracted much criticism.
Many Gabonese ventured out early on Wednesday to stock up on groceries, anticipating the violent clashes between protesters and the armed forces, which were deployed to the streets of Libreville on Tuesday.
The army fired stun grenades and teargas at a crowd of people outside the headquarters of the electoral commission shouting “Ali must go!” According to Ping, they also fired live bullets, which he said killed three and wounded many. Bongo’s aides denied this and accused the opposition of fabricating rumours.
The first battle was not fought on Libreville’s potholed streets, however, but in an obscure corner of Wikipedia. Overnight, there were more than 100 modificationsto the online encyclopedia’s page on Haut Ogooué, a Gabonese province.
One minute its population was 54,000, the next 250,000. Then it was changed back.
In Gabon’s election, much rested on how many voters there were in Haut Ogooué, the last province to be counted, and which way they voted.
According to the electoral commission, 99.9% of the province, Bongo’s home region, took part in the vote, and 95% of them voted for him. The question on the lips of many Gabonese citizens was why there was such a high turnout in Haut Ogooué, when nationally it was 59%.
However, Bongo scored lower than his father, who famously won 100% of the national vote in the 1986 election, with a 99.9% turnout, when Gabon was still a one-party state.
Ping, a half-Chinese diplomat who was previously one of the Bongo family’s most trusted cronies, rejected the result and demanded a recount in Haut Ogooué.
He said: “The citizens of Gabon peacefully and respectfully exercised their right to freely and fairly choose our country’s next president. The current president, Ali Bongo, did not approve of their choice, so he substituted his will for theirs.
“Ali Bongo wants the Gabonese people and the entire world to believe his ‘results’ that he took three days behind closed doors to concoct. The Gabonese people and the world can clearly see the fraud, lies, and manipulation behind a ‘99.9%’ voter turnout in the areas where he ‘won’ – also by a truly unbelievable ‘95%’ – including thousands of voters who don’t even exist or are currently alive there.
“‘Results’ like Ali Bongo’s are the hallmarks of dictators and tyrants who refuse to give up power – not the cornerstones of democracies, nations, and peoples who respect fairness and the rule of law.”
Ping added: “To use one province to impose a coup in the country could have serious consequences for national unity.”
Opposition parties united behind Ping just a week before the election. His party claimed victory very early on, as did Bongo.
The national election commission (Cenap) was due to announce the result on Tuesday afternoon at 5pm local time. As the nation held its breath and turned on its televisions to learn its fate, however, Cenap failed to appear, and nervous voters were instead treated to reruns of Hannah Montana, the American TV series that made Miley Cyrus famous. Cenap officials surfaced nearly a full day later.
Many Gabonese also pointed out that five days to count 600,000 votes – Gabon is a country with vast rainforests but a tiny population – was excessive.
Ping had been expected to win, according to François Conradie, an analyst from NKC African Economics.