There is a very important reason to pay attention to Gabon’s parliamentary elections
Hidden away on the west coast of Central Africa with its less than 2 million citizens, it can be tempting to ignore Gabon, or at least to see it as altogether harmless.
Yes, its second president, Omar Bongo Odimba came to power after a coup and forcefully remained in office for 41 years, and after he died, his son Ali took over from him in what mimicked proper elections, but was actually a consolidation of power within the family.
Still it doesn’t look bad. It, after all, continues to enjoy, at least on paper, the fruits of its oil-based economy and a business friendly government that has made it one of the most economically successful countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, sitting pretty in fourth position in the Human Development Index, with impressive GDP per capita and consistent growth.
Its photogenic new president is always ready to open his arms wide to visitors, hosting elaborate conferences like the New York Forum Africa at which this writer was once an invited speaker. And just in case there are any signs of trouble, the soldiers deployed by France after the attempted coup and violence continue to enforce order to this day at Camp de Gaulle, just outside Libreville, its capital.
Elections have held dutifully every seven years under this “democracy”, though there is the pesky detail of the sharply disputed 2016 presidential elections that was marred by the killings of about 100 people and a thousand more arrested after protests broke out in Libreville and the government reacted with violent reprisals. These were the same elections criticized for fanciful turn out numbers (almost 100 percent in the President’s province) and “irregularities” by a consensus of international observers — culminating in the European Union denouncing the results and calling the government out on human rights violations.
He ended up winning by less than two percent.
Oh, and there’s the small matter of at least a third of its citizens living below the poverty line despite its vast oil wealth.
Now if you were watching from afar, you would have seen its “bold” constitutional court dissolve parliament because the 30 April deadline for the elections was missed and then order the Prime Minister (and number two man in government) to resign and dissolve his cabinet. Except for the fact that the prime minister, Emmanuel Issoze-Ngondet was immediately reappointed the next day by Bongo and formed a 40-member “interim government” that has been running the country until the legislative vote now fixed for 6 October.
The courts went through this farce to ease Bongo’s his wish to delay elections, apparently to avoid an opposition victory, since the opposition has become very popular.
One wonders why he even bothers, except to pretend to legitimacy, since he already superintended constitutional reforms that have given him the power to make policy without consulting the legislature and for his security chiefs to swear allegiance to him instead of the country. The one sensible promise he had made — to restore the term limits taken away by his father — never materialized.
All of this is also remarkable when you remember that his father’s predecessor had also dissolved his National Assembly 54 years ago and instituted a one party system, leading to the nation’s first coup attempt.
So these legislative elections are not at all routine. They are the battleground for either the beginning of the end for Bongo, or a successful attempt by this smooth operator to consolidate power and continue the family tradition of oppression.
On the background of this, it is, in fact, remarkable how far the opposition Gabonese Democratic Party has come in the face of the immense difficulties of dislodging a man who seems to believe his country belongs to him.
It, of course, helps that its candidate in the last presidential elections, Jean Ping was previously part of Bongo’s inner circle. Still, the victory he almost won in 2016 continues to ring loud in this tiny country. And even though the rest of the world really doesn’t care what happens in Gabon in a few days, those who monitor citizen movements across the world will do well to pay close attention.
Our attention will send a message to the beleaguered citizens of Gabon. So that those who seek a better life for themselves and freedom for their country know that they are not alone, that no country should belong to one family and for so long, and that we are cheering them on as they fight this uphill, wrenching battle for the soul of their nation.