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Gabon election: Ali Bongo hoped to extend family's rule

Kate Hairsine
August 25, 2023

The Bongo family has ruled Gabon for more than 50 years. The presidential election wasn't expected to change that. The tiny oil-rich nation is grappling with high unemployment while the elite live luxuriously.

Women wave and smile at Gabon's president, Ali Bongo, as he walks past
President Ali Bongo Ondimba was on the campaign trail in Ntoum ouside of the capital LibrevilleImage: imago images/Afrikimages

Gabon went to the polls on Saturday, August 26, to vote in presidential, legislative and local elections.

President Ali Bongo was favored to win a third term. He has ruled the oil-rich Central African country since winning elections after his father, Omar Bongo, died in 2009.

While 18 other presidential candidates were approved to run, the opposition alliance Alternance 2023 announced last week that it would support a joint candidate to avoid splitting the opposition vote and end the Bongo family's 56-year rule.

The six groupings that comprise the alliance said they would withdraw their candidates in favor of 69-year-old Albert Ondo Ossa, an economist and former education minister under Omar Bongo.

"Personally, I am for change, and that is why on the 26th I am going to vote for Mr. Ondo Ossa so that there is a change, so that we can put an end to this corrupt system," student Jordan Massalla told AFP news agency at an Alternance 2023 rally on Sunday.

Bongo controversially won the 2016 election by just a few thousand votes — despite monitors finding apparent anomalies. His victory triggered clashes between opposition supporters and security forces, resulting in several deaths and injuries.

"We must have elections without death," Ondo Ossa said in a speech on the weekend. "Gabon and the Gabonese people have paid with their blood. It's now or never, we must manage the country differently."

Albert Ondo Ossa waves his arms as he dances during a campaign meeting in Gabon.
Albert Ondo Ossa is the presidential candidate for the main opposition allianceImage: Steeve JORDAN/AFP

Bongo expected to win

Bongo, who has the backing of the ruling Parti Democratique Gabonais (PDG) founded by his father, was tipped to win Saturday's election — although the lack of opinion polls this year makes it difficult to gauge his actual level of support.

"He's going to win, he's put Gabonese people to work, he's reduced unemployment, he can win, because he's developing our country, Gabon," Olivier Mbango, a young student, told DW.

On the campaign trail, Bongo promised higher family subsidies and cuts to public school fees. But his detractors say he has done little in his 14 years as president to funnel the country's oil wealth to ordinary people.

As one of Africa's top oil producers, Gabon has a higher GDP per capita than many other nations in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite this, more than a third of its 2.4 million people live below the poverty line, with unemployment at 37%.

Bongo's health concerns

The opposition has also questioned the fitness of the 64-year-old president after he had a heart attack in 2018 and wasn't seen publicly for nearly a year afterward. He still has a stiff arm and leg but appeared strong while campaigning.

"There's no question that Ali Bongo would be declared the winner," said Gyldas Ofoulhast-Othamot, a political scientist at St. Petersburg College in the United States. "But being declared the winner and actually winning is two different things."

Gabon's election process is far from free and fair, with the country only gaining two out of 40 possible points for political freedom in Freedom House's latest report.

Bongo family influence

Ali Bongo's power has weakened compared to that of his father, Omar, but he still has a firm grip on state institutions, maintaining political dominance through a combination of patronage and repression.

During his 41 years in power, Omar Bongo became notorious for raiding his country's resource wealth to amass a fortune that included some 40 luxury properties in France, 66 bank accounts and over 180 cars, including a Bugatti sports model that cost $1.5 million (€1.38 million). To give an idea of his vast wealth, the former president moved $100 million in funds through a single New York Citibank account from 2003 to 2007.

Men march in uniform around the coffin of Gabonese President Omar Bongo outside the presidential palace in Libreville in 2009
When Omar Bongo died in 2009 (his funeral is seen here), he was the world's longest-serving head of governmentImage: picture alliance/AP

The Bongo family members number in their hundreds (Omar Bongo sired at least 50 children) and they occupy key posts in the government and the economy.

Single ballot paper

Last-minute changes to the voting process were also expected to help the incumbent to victory.

The Gabonese Election Centre, the body in charge of elections, introduced a single ballot paper to vote for all three elections on Saturday.

The single ballot grouped presidential, legislative and local candidates from the same party together. It meant that when someone voted for a member of parliament from a particular party, for example, they automatically also voted for that party's presidential candidate.

This put independent candidates, such as the main opposition's candidate, Albert Ondo Ossa, at a disadvantage. To get around this, the opposition is urging people to only vote for presidential and local elections and boycott the parliamentary vote.

While the opposition is furious about the change, ordinary Gabonese in the capital Libreville also seem confounded.

"I don't know why everything is being changed at the last minute. With the elections coming up, are our grandparents going to understand all these new things?" one woman complained to DW.

Sidella Nymane and Georges Ibrahim Tounkara contributed to this article.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu