AFCON launch in divided Gabon | Africa | DW | 13.01.2017
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AFCON launch in divided Gabon

The Africa Cup (AFCON) starts in Gabon on Saturday. Political instability and an economic crisis could take its toll on the tournament, but the government is hoping for an image boost abroad nonethless.

Football first, democracy second? Gabon was meant to hold parliamentary elections in December last year. The government postponed the polls to July, citing a lack of funds. But some observers think the decision was also taken to ensure that the Africa Cup (AFCON), starting this Saturday, would not be overshadowed by political instability. 

Sixteen teams are competing at this year's tournament and the finals are due on February 5. "We have to ensure that the games go  well," Gabon's Foreign Minister Pacome Moubelet Boubeya told DW. The players and the spectactors should get the chance "to fete and to celebrate football," he said.

Political divisions

Gabon's government desperately needs a successful tournament to boost its image abroad, which is still tarnished by a disputed presidential election last August and a subsequent wave of violence.

Ali Bongo Ondimba taking the oath of office in December

Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba embarked on his controversial second term in September 2016

Incumbent president Ali Bongo won the polls with just over 50 percent of the vote. But his closest rival Jean Ping, a former president of the African Union Commission, refused to concede defeat. He accused the government of electoral fraud. 

European Union election observers have confirmed that "anomalities" occurred during the vote. In President Bongo's heartland of Haut-Ogooue, voter turnout stood at 99 percent, compared to about 54 percent in the rest of the country. 95 percent of the votes in Haut-Ogooue went to the president.

Several people were killed in violent clashes after the polls, but there are conflicting figures for the death toll. The opposition says 26 were killed, the government has confirmed the deaths of just three people. Both sides have called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the violence. President Bongo has been sworn in for a second term of office nonetheless, following a controversial ruling by the country's constitutional court.

Under these circumstances, the opposition does not think that Gabon is an appropriate host for Africa's flagship football tournament.

"The Africa Cup should be held in a country that is calm", opposition chief Ping told DW. "The games are going to reflect the situation the country is in. What happened was a coup d'etat at the ballot box that has still not been fully investigated," he said.

An oil rigg off Gabon'S coast

Statistically, Gabon is a rich country but ordinary Gabonese see little of the country's oil wealth

The threat of empty stadiums

Opposition groups have threatened to stage protests during the Africa Cup, hightening fears of fresh clashes. The government, for its part, insists that the games will be safe. "We have beefed up our security measures", Foreign Mnister Pacôme Moubelet Boubeya said.

Gabon's economic crisis could also overshadow the tournament. Ticket sales are said to be slow, despite low prices.

Statistically, Gabon is one Africa's richest countries with a GDP per capita of $10,000 (9,400 euros) per year, Reuters reported in September. But its oil wealth has mostly flowed to the country's elite, breeding widespread discontent in the former French colony. Falling oil prices and production have led to budget cuts among those who have not enjoyed the benefits of oil wealth.    

The government is still hoping that AFCON will be a rousing success. "Every country sometimes faces a difficult economic situation," Foreign Minister Pacome Moubelet Boubeya said, noting that France facing economic woes while organizing the European Championships. 

Fiacre Ndayiragije contributed to this report