Q&A: ISS speaks on controversial Gabon elections

A protester pours water on a tear gas canister during clashes between supporters in Libreville after Gabon's president Ali Bongo was declared winner of last weekend's contested election. (AFP)
A protester pours water on a tear gas canister during clashes between supporters in Libreville after Gabon's president Ali Bongo was declared winner of last weekend's contested election. (AFP)

Libreville - Violence swept across Libreville in Gabon on Thursday, as thousands of angry protesters took to the streets, accusing the government of "stealing" the election after President Ali Bongo was declared the winner of Saturday's polls.

According to reports, security forces stormed the opposition's headquarters, killing several people.

Live ammunition was used by heavily armed security forces on the protesters.

The opposition described the election as fraudulent and called for voting results from each of Gabon's polling stations to be made public to ensure the credibility of the overall outcome, a demand echoed by the United States and European Union.

News24 spoke to Stephanie Wolters, who is the Head of Peace and Security Research Programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) regarding the situation in the west African country.

News24: There are questionable figures regarding the poll results in Gabon, as well as complaints on the transparency of the election process. What can you say about the validity of the just ended election and the outcome?

Stephanie Wolters: There are question marks regarding the validity of the election outcome, in other words does it really reflect the number of votes that were cast for Ali Bongo and those that were cast for Jean Ping, or was there some kind of manipulation. The EU commentators said that they would have liked to see the list of votes of each polling station to add more transparency and validity to the figures.

The US has also said that they would have liked more transparency. I think you have to go back and look at the context in which these elections took place and look at the resources that Ali Bongo as the incumbent had at his disposal, including state funds, machinery of the state and access to media. Comments by observers have highlighted the lack of a level playing field. So it is also about the voting environment that led up to the elections.

I think that, especially in Gabon where there is a long history of vote rigging, if you go back to Ali Bongo's father, Omar Bongo, this is not new to the Gabon electorate and they are very suspicious of this kind of corruption.

News24: So what does this mean for the Gabonese nationals and the stability of the country. We know for instance that violence broke out in the capital soon after the poll results were announced on Wednesday?

SW: We anticipated that the elections would be tense and that there could be violence, with the delay in releasing the results further undermining its credibility as well as galvanising the opposition. You have to remember also in 2009 when Ali Bongo was elected as president in the elections held after the death of Omar Bongo, tensions and violence were also witnessed.

I think that the security forces have also cracked down very heavily on opposition supporters. This is not a surprise, as they are loyal to Ali Bongo at least for now.

The opposition managed to organise itself to position one main candidate in the hope that it would unify the opposition and that they could defeat Bongo, so there's been real effort put into this by the opposition.

The Gabonese people simply do not believe that this has been a credible elections and the violence now could continue for a very long time, as various countries have called for calm. Ali Bongo hasn't done a very good job in his first term and this is the sentiment that is being shown by the protesters.

News24: Gabon has been ruled by the Bongo family for a number of years, what does this say about the country and its claim to being a democracy?

SW: There is a wide tendency by incumbents to want to stay in office. We've seen it in central Africa, with it causing great instability. So this tendency to want to stay in office is detrimental of any kind of consolidation of democracy and stability that you need for economic growth.

Gabon has been very fortunate because it has a small population and it has massive oil wealth, but if you look at how that's been distributed, its been distributed extremely unequally with large pockets of society living in abject conditions. The economy hasn't been diversified as there is massive corruption in the oil sector.

So this issue of people clinging to power - and you have to remember that Omar Bongo did change the constitution to abolish presidential term limits - is a tremendous factor in instability in African countries and it's a huge obstacle to the development of the economy and country as a whole.

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