Gabon opposition bastion sees spike in religious violence

Bitam - At nightfall, frightened Muslim youths armed with sticks stand guard in the Gabonese town of Bitam, after a wave of post-election violence saw their community mosque and businesses targeted by protesters who accuse them of supporting President Ali Bongo.

Since Bongo claimed victory last week in a disputed election by a wafer-thin margin of less than 6 000 votes, many angry residents of the opposition bastion of Bitam in northern Gabon joined the riots that erupted nationwide.

Here, they hurled stones and used Molotov cocktails to set fire to businesses owned by the minority Hausa community - an umbrella term used to describe the Muslim descendants of immigrant traders who moved to Gabon from neighbouring nations in the early 20th century.

Among the targets in the town, which is located near the Cameroon border, were the main food storehouse and a local food shop. Barring a few surviving columns, both have been reduced to ashes.

Since Monday, shops in the town centre have been closed, with the curtains drawn. Even the bars, which are often busy with customers, are shut.

"We're losing a lot of money but we are scared," says Mamoun, a Muslim shop owner.

When the anti-Bongo riots erupted in the capital Libreville and beyond, enraged rioters in traditional opposition bastions like Bitam took aim at members of the Hausa community, who share the embattled president's Muslim faith.

"They started a fire here," Mohamadou Bouhari told AFP as he pointed at a wooden shack.

He said the arsonists' aim was for the flames to spread to a nearby mosque, where worshippers were attending prayer.

Ping supporters Zimel and Wesler, aged 25 and 28, said they were pleased their Muslim neighbours were facing trouble.

"We gave the Hausa a little place in society, but they must not interfere in our business, they are foreigners!" one of the students said.

'Deathtrap' 

Like many others in Bitam, they believe the Hausa voted for Bongo on August 27. They also believe the ballots here were rigged, with some voters issued with more than one polling card.

"Ali (Bongo) wouldn't have scored one percent here, we are fed up," Zimel said.

He said many Gabonese were tired of the "dynasty that has ruled for more than 50 years", of feeling "abandoned" by the authorities in an oil-rich country, and of "depending on neighbouring countries".

"All our food comes from Cameroon, we don't produce anything here" apart from cassava and plantains, said local resident Emmanuel Menie, who is in his 50s.

"Bitam is a deathtrap. When you fall ill you have to go to hospital in Cameroon or Equatorial Guinea."

Hausa chief Baba Toukour Oumar admits that about 80 percent of his fellow community members voted for Bongo.

"But is that a crime?" he said, adding that this is not the first wave of attacks on Muslims that Gabon has seen in recent history.

"The first was in 1964, during the coup bid against Leon Mba," Gabon's first post-independence president, said the chief, who was once an advisor to the head of state's father and predecessor Omar Bongo, who ruled for 41 years.

'Situation may deteriorate' 

The minority, which constitutes less than a tenth of the population, has since lived side by side with the rest of the community, with mixed marriages quite common.

"They are our brothers in all aspects of our everyday lives, but the general feeling of discontent is too grave, the situation may degenerate at any moment," opposition MP Patrick Eyogo warned.

For a week, the Cameroon border has been closed, and there are fears of food shortages.

Meanwhile, distrust of the Hausa is soaring, with Ping's supporters accusing them of "taking up machetes", seeking revenge by setting fire to cars and attacking an opposition official's home.

Fearing an all-out outbreak of violence, security forces are deployed to secure the market, petrol stations and public buildings.

Hausa youth armed with clubs and sticks meanwhile set up barricades to stop possible assailants from breaking into their neighbourhood in the east of the town.

Community chief Baba Toukour Oumar says "there aren't enough of us" to put up a defence should any major attacks take place.

"So we just don't sleep any longer."

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