On paper, Gabon is the third-wealthiest country in sub-Saharan Africa. It has a small population and significant oil reserves, but like neighboring Equatorial Guinea, this resource blessing is really a curse. Oil money means that Gabon’s ruling family can afford 39 properties in Paris and along the French Riviera, but it doesn’t mean that ordinary Gabonese can eat well or send their kids to school.
Normally, you’d expect a good kleptocrat to spread the wealth around a little and buy votes through patronage; local leaders would hop on board the gravy train and convince some of their followers to get on board as well. The country wouldn’t have fair elections, and there might be some serious irregularities in the vote tallies, but it wouldn’t be so obvious. But that’s not how Gabon’s elections, pitting incumbent president Ali Bongo against challenger Jean Ping, played out a little more than a week ago. The Guardian:
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. […]
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.
As rigged elections go, this one is just blatant. Of course, Bongo was not going to go quietly into the night. He only has to look around the neighborhood—Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, the Republic of the Congo—to see strongmen who have rigged elections and clutched the state apparatus even closer after each successive re-election. It is curious that Bongo’s vote-rigging was so obvious, and more curious still that the “opposition” candidate Jean Ping did not do more to anticipate this outcome, especially given the country’s history under Bongo’s father Omar.
Calling Jean Ping an opposition candidate is a little like calling Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton new and exciting talent in the 2016 presidential election—it just strains credulity. Closer inspection reveals that Ping, Gabon’s former foreign minister, was so deeply entangled in Omar Bongo’s political establishment that he married into it. Ping’s former wife is Bongo Senior’s daughter . . . meaning that incumbent President Ali Bongo is Ping’s ex-brother-in-law.
Ping left Gabon to boost his credentials as chairman of the African Union Commission from 2008-12. Omar Bongo died in 2009, and after an interim of a few months his son Ali succeeded him. By 2014, Ping was imagining his political comeback and decided to break with the Bongo family and the ruling party. As it turns out, Ping’s maneuvers made for good politics, and the popular discontent was powerful enough to deliver Ping a strong mandate in the recent election—so strong it could show through the vote-rigging.
But in his experience at the AU, Ping turned a blind eye to rigged elections across the continent. He should have been prepared for this sort of outcome in his own country. But he clearly wasn’t. His response has been to declare victory, organize half-hearted strikes, and hide out as government helicopters have bombed his party headquarters in recent days. Ping’s most visible action this week has been to land an op-ed in the NYT. The piece is a veritable treasure trove of half-truths like this one that sound convincing until you learn more about Ping:
Well, when the people of Gabon voted for their leader, they chose me. They chose a change from the dynastic regime that has ruled our country since 1967. Mr. Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo Ondimba, ruled from 1967 to 2009, when the son took over. Now Mr. Bongo is throwing a deadly and dangerous tantrum because the people of Gabon told him that it’s time for him to go.
And then there is this paragraph, which is just plain disingenuous:
We have seen “results” like these before, but only from sham elections, most often in dictatorships. The citizens of Gabon had peacefully and respectfully exercised their right to freely and fairly choose our country’s next president. Mr. Bongo did not approve of their choice, so he substituted his will for theirs. While we are disappointed, we were not surprised. Mr. Bongo did the same thing in 2009; he was up to his same tricks again.
Several things are implied here that are not true:
- Implication: Gabon is a democracy that doesn’t have a history of sham elections.
- Truth: Gabon is a family-run casino where the house always wins.
- Implication: Ping has been consistent in his support of democracy.
- Truth: Ping turned a blind eye to blatant vote-rigging in Zimbabwe and Sudan while leading the AU.
- Implication: Ping disapproved of Bongo’s conduct in 2009.
- Truth: Ping kept mum in 2009 and supported Ali Bongo’s party through 2014.
Since Ping does not appear to have mobilized massive protests and doesn’t have a militant wing at his disposal, it looks like Bongo will wait this one out while the usual suspects at the State Department and the UN issue boilerplate calls for “every vote to count” in Gabon. The AU is sending Idriss Déby, the longtime ruler of Chad who has faced vote-rigging allegations of his own, to mediate discussions between Ping and Bongo. Yeah, you read that right.
Then there’s the not-so-African-elephant in the room: France. Omar Bongo once said of France’s relationship with Gabon, “Gabon without France is like a car with no driver. France without Gabon is like a car with no fuel.” The two countries have enjoyed close bilateral ties under the Bongo family rule, only coming under strain a few years ago when—against the wishes of the Elysée—French courts began investigating and launching raids on the family’s property. The ties remain strong between the Gabonese government and the French executive and foreign ministry; France also has an infantry base in Gabon. Right now, the French are paying lip service to Ping’s victory, but don’t expect substantial action to follow those empty words.
France has intervened before in disputed elections when its interests are at stake—and there’s a slight chance it will do so again if the French sense that backing Bongo will be bad for their long-term interests. For Ping to become President, he will have to raise the costs of French inaction and drive the French to intervene. Whether Ping is capable of creating the conditions for intervention—such as by launching crippling strikes or beginning a civil war—remains to be seen. In the meantime, the Bongo-Elysée relationship is the only fraternité the French are likely to defend.