The August 27 presidential election held Gabon observers riveted to their news and twitter feeds (#Gabon, #GabonVote) as the centralization and publication of vote results dragged into a fourth day. Results were finally announced by the Minister of Interior in the afternoon of August 31.
According to the election commission’s preliminary results, incumbent President Ali Bongo won reelection with 49.80 percent of the votes, against 48.23 percent for his closest contender, former chair of the African Union (AU) commission, Jean Ping. The eight other candidates remaining in the race received less than 2 percent among them. Voter turn-out among Gabon’s 627,805 registered voters was reportedly 59.46 percent. The electoral code does not provide for a run-off in the event that no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote. For a discussion of the election framework and of the institutions responsible for managing the electoral process, see the July 2016 pre-election report by the National Democratic Institute (NDI).
By the evening of August 30 it was clear that the outcome of the election hinged on one of the nine provinces of Gabon – the Haut-Ogooué, the stronghold of incumbent President Ali Bongo and birthplace of his father, Omar Bongo. Results for this second most populous province in the country were only received late at night, according to the chairman of the election commission (CENAP), René Aboghé Ella. Reportedly, 99.93 percent of the electorate in the province (71,714 registered voters) turned out on election day, with 95.46 percent of the votes going to Bongo, giving him an edge of 5,594 votes over Ping. A razor thin margin. In the remaining eight provinces and among the diaspora, according to the provisional results announced by the Ministry of Interior to be validated by the Constitutional Court, voter turnout was between 45 and 71 percent, see table below:
Gabon 2016 presidential election results
|Province||Ali Bongo||Jean Ping||Voter turn-out|
|Estuaire||37.33%||60.88 %||47.35 %|
While Ping won six of the nine provinces plus the diaspora vote, the exceptionally high voter turn-out in favor of Bongo in the province of Haut-Ogooué was enough to turn the tables.
Upon the announcement of President Bongo’s reelection, riots broke out in Libreville and other cities in the interior. Angry protesters set fire to the national assembly building; government and private pro-opposition media offices were also vandalized. More than 1,000 people were arrested in Libreville and the provinces, and three killed, according to official sources. The opposition claims many more died. Ping called for a national strike, but economic activity resumed slowly the week following the announcement of the results.
The violence was not a surprise, in a context of deep political polarization between supporters of President Bongo and his opponents, many of whom are former prominent members of the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG). For an earlier blog post on Ali Bongo’s efforts at breaking with his father’s patronage practices and casting himself as a modern, transparent and accountable president, see here. Inviting the EU to observe the election appears to have been in line with these efforts.
The deadline for contesting the results is today, 8 September. While the Bongo camp has already indicated its intention to complain to the Constitutional Court about certain polling stations, the Ping side demands a recount for the Haut-Ogooué province specifically, preferably in the presence of international experts. The EU observer delegation to Gabon has flagged “anomalies” in the number of non-voters and blank and invalid ballots that does not appear to correspond with the reported participation rate in Haut-Ogooué. President Bongo has charged the EU observers with “bias,” for not flagging polling stations where Ping allegedly scored 100 percent of the vote. According to Bongo, a recount would be done at the “level of the Constitutional Court,” which Ping says he does not trust. The EU, France and the US have called for the publication of results polling station by polling station, to ease cross checking or results with the copies of results sheets given to candidate representatives at each polling station.
The AU has offered to send a delegation to facilitate talks between the two sides, under the leadership of President Idriss Deby of Chad who currently holds the AU-chairmanship – an offer welcomed by both Bongo and Ping.
Whoever is ultimately declared the winner when the Constitutional Court validates the final results, it is clear that Gabon is in dire need of electoral and political reforms. The EU observer delegation’s preliminary statement stated that management of the election “lacked transparency.” Public trust in the election commission leading into the election was already the lowest among 36 countries surveyed by Afrobarometer in 2014/2015: 51 percent of Gabonese surveyed said they do “not at all” trust the CENAP; an additional 24 percent trust it “just a little.” Only 8 percent trust it “a lot,” and 17 percent “somewhat.” Moreover, 71 percent said that their votes are “never” or only “sometimes” counted fairly. At the same time, Afrobarometer found the Gabonese to be among the strongest supporters of multiparty democracy in Africa; and 92 percent of the respondents said they favor limiting presidential terms to two (currently, Gabon does not have presidential term limits). These sentiments echo findings by the NDI pre-election assessment mission indicating widespread consensus among Gabonese about the need for “institutional reforms that are at the heart of recurring tensions around elections in the country” (p.19).