Month Of Tumult – Gabon’s State Of Disarray
Gabon has had a particularly challenging year. Due to hold elections earlier this year which had initially been due to take place in 2016, then delayed to 2017, and again to April 2018, the long-awaited vote occurred at the beginning of the month, with the runoff round held on 27th October. The incumbents, the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), were expected to win from the outset, and the results proved these predictions correct. In this case, why should we care?
Well for starters it is a positive movement toward a functioning democracy in an economically poor nation, though rich in natural resources. Lack of funds was the original reason cited for the delaying of the election back in 2016. However, there are other reasons which have been remarked upon by outside observers. The presidential election of 2016 was fraught with violence due to the rigging of the election by Ali Bongo, who indirectly set the electoral regulations in order that they may suit him, as well as by militarily repressing public demonstrations, targeting his opponent Jean Ping with a bomb, and preventing easy and transparent access to information regarding the voting process. Gabon, set to host the African Cup of Nations in early 2017, may have felt that the possibility of politically motivated violence on the eve of such a prestigious event would have marred its reputation at a time where many eyes internationally would be focused on it. Bongo is distrusted as a leader by other nations due to the unbroken chain of the familial rule since 1967, first by Ali’s father Omar until his death in 2009. Political opposition in Gabon is threadbare and scattered, due not only to the violence as mentioned above and governmental electoral fraud but also because of the widespread corruption and bribery amongst election officials. The weight of this combination is the overwhelming victory enjoyed by the PDG, winning 98 out of 143 seats in the National Assembly. With the election passed with less upheaval than was feared, Gabon’s government seemed to be in the clear. But recent events have changed all that.
On a reasonably unexceptional visit to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to attend the Future Investment Initiative Conference, President Ali Bongo fell ill and was rushed to the King Faisal Hospital on 24th October. At first glance this may seem like a surprising turn of events, but upon closer inspection the possibility reveals itself that this may have been planned, in light of the trend of African elites going abroad to receive healthcare rather than stay at home where the national infrastructure is weak, and drugs are more difficult to come by. Although the official line from the Gabonese government is that Bongo is fine just merely fatigued, reports are emerging that the president has suffered a stroke. In fact, competing accounts and false statements have characterised the entire saga, with some claiming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin-Salman visited Bongo in hospital, others claiming Bongo attended a speech by the prince, and a Cameroonian television network even reporting that Bongo had died, despite no facts existing to support this claim.
The suddenly ailing health of a relatively young leader (59) raises questions for the future of the over half a century old Bongo dynasty in Gabon. The legislative victory in the elections for the PDG has cemented their control of the Assembly for the next five years, possibly longer if elections are delayed again, but the simultaneous threat to the executive has thrown stability into question. If Bongo were to die, power may pass to his daughter, Malika Bongo, has already expressed her desire to succeed her father. But a third Bongo could be too much for the Gabonese people to stomach, engendering a social revolution and reformation of government, a desire exacerbated by the notion of a female president, something of great concern to conservatives in the country. Instead, the death of the president could pave the way for the return of Jean Ping or another anti-Bongo candidate, though this would require mass unification of opposition forces against the PDG since even the death of the leader would unlikely be enough to tear the party apart.
A very recent but interesting development in the Gabon story is the hacking of dozens of official government websites by Anonymous, the covert group of hacktivists known for exposing institutional corruption across the globe. The first attack of its kind on a Central African government, the efforts of the group have brought Gabon’s reputation even more sharply into focus, citing the state’s dictatorial rule as the reason for it being targeted. This initial move could be the beginning of the end of Bongo rule in Gabon, or it could just be an unfortunate blip for the party in their routine. The deciding factor, crudely put, is going to be whether the president lives or dies.