The recent democratic transition in Benin Republic where the opposition ousted the ruling party to usher in President Patrice Talon about three months ago raised the hope that Africa was getting it right with democratic transitions at long last. However, the celebration was cut short with recent developments in Gabon, the tiny Central African country which now presents a new challenge to democracy advancement on the continent.
Gabon, an oil rich country of 1, 763,142(2016) people, with strong international private investment, now faces a bleak future as political violence is gradually becoming the order of the day.
The unfolding violent political situation started with the August 27, Presidential Election, contested by the incumbent President Ali Bongo and the main opposition challenger, Jean Ping, former chairman of the African Union( AU) Commission. Although the poll was adjudged to be largely peaceful by international observers, the process ran into troubled waters from the declaration of results.
Early results collated by the electoral body put Ping in the lead. However, after two days of delay in counting ballots from the home province of Bongo, the table changed. Bongo who was hitherto trailing Ping was declared winner with a difference of just 5,000 votes. Following the official release of results, enraged supporters of Ping took to the streets to protest what they termed a brazen attempt to thwart the will of the people by the incumbent President Bongo. The ensuing violence led to the partial burning of the country’s parliament building and the killing of some protesters by the Gabonese military who poured into the streets to stop the protests.
Government troops reacted by invading the campaign headquarters of the opposition candidate, Ping in an operation that claimed the lives of at least two people.
Recent reports have it that over 50 people were arrested and detained by the government forces even though about half the number were later released following concerns expressed by UN Secretary General, Ban Ki- moon and other members of the international community who sued for sanity and return to the rule of law in the unfolding situation.
Apparently dissatisfied with the situation, Gabonese Attorney General, Seraphin Moundounga, announced his resignation penultimate Tuesday, accusing government of lack of commitment to restore peace and order in the country. His resignation may have sent a strong message to the international community that Bongo may have breached the law in his seeming desperation to hang onto power.
Since the crisis erupted, international pressure has mounted on the Gabonese authorities to tread the part of constitutionality and decency. The EU which sent Election Observer Mission to Gabon called for a review of votes in each of the polling units to ascertain the accuracy of the count that led to claimed victory by Bongo. The EU position was met with anger by Bongo who obviously saw the call as meddlesomeness in the electoral process by a supposedly impartial observer mission.
On its part, the U.S. called for restraint from all parties and declared support for the proposed AU delegation to visit Gabon to resolve the crisis. The U.S. specifically requested “All parties and their supporters to refrain from violence, inflammatory language; cessation of aggression against all people living in Gabon, regardless of their ethnic background or national origin. All sides, including security forces, must exercise restraint and respect international human rights standards” and government urged to ensure “due process to those who have been arrested and to provide family members information about their welfare and whereabouts.”
France, the former colonial masters of Gabon with known historical ties with the Bongo family over the decades was yet to approve of the election and its outcome.
But the demonstrations which sparked off in Paris in front of the Gabonese Embassy in the wake of impasse, appeared to have received Paris’ endorsement as demonstrators called on Bongo to step down to save the country from further crisis.
Few days ago, the AU delegation was being awaited to arrive Libreville, the capital but Chadian President Idris Deby, chairman of the AU Authority of Heads of States and Governments assured his delegation would head to Gabon as soon as conditions were conducive for it to discharge its mandate.
The crisis in Gabon is one that deserves serious concern of Africa. The country is surrounded by Equatorial Guinea to the north-west, Cameroon to the north and the Republic of the Congo on the east and south, all African countries that have some level of political stability. The crisis should not be allowed to have contagious effects on these neighbours.
Secondly, the AU must insist that the path of constitutionality is strictly followed in resolving the crisis. The critical questions to resolve are whether the election was indeed manipulated as claimed by Ping and whether a recount or verification as suggested by EU or a completely fresh election is the best solution in the circumstance. Incumbent President Bongo has advised Ping to go to court with his grievances. The EU must determine if such a constitutional court would give justice to all parties in the crisis.
Gabon, though with oil wealth, is a small African country which does not command much influence in continental affairs. So ordinarily her affairs would not generate so much interest by the major power players in the continental politics. Moreover, the crisis seems to many observers as a case of a house divided against itself. Until two years ago, Ping was a close political ally of Bongo, who took over power from his father Omar Bongo and both have been in power for 42 years since the country got independence from France. That Ping is married from the Bongo family even makes it more difficult to say whether he represents the true break from the past which the people of Gabon might wish to have.
But the crisis in Gabon is beyond the personalities involved as it presents yet another test for the future of democracy in Africa. The mood of the continent in my view is in favour of transparent elections where the opposition has just equal opportunity with the incumbent to win. The situation in Nigeria, Burkina-Faso and Benin, where opposition parties won the elections in recent times is still fresh and represents the true feelings and desires of the continent. Nevertheless, these desires must be articulated within the provisions of the national laws of each country which must be seen to have been obeyed. This is what the situation in Gabon demands. And if democracy in the continent is to be sustained, the actors must bear in mind the need to abide by the principle of the rule of law and due process.
Editor’s note: This piece, first published last week generated a huge public interest. Its repeat this week was on strong demand by our readers within and outside the country.