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Opinion: Gabon and the silence of African institutions

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Dirke Köpp
September 2, 2016

In Libreville, Gabon, residents ventured out on the streets and surveyed damage after two days of riots sparked by a disputed presidential poll. There was little to choose between the main candidates, writes Dirke Köpp.

Libreville, Gabon: Government buildings damaged by post-election rioting
Image: Getty Images/AP/J. Bouopda

Parliament was burnt down, more than 1,000 people were arrested, several people lost their lives and the capital Libreville was sealed off by the police and the military. That's brief description of what happened after the presidential elections in Gabon last Saturday (27.08.3016). Why did it happen? Because a section of the population was not prepared to accept incumbent President Ali Bongo Ondimba as the winner of the poll. They believe his election victory, announced by the Electoral Commission, was fraudulent. Ali Bongo's reply to his poliitcal opponents was to adopt a tough line and deploy members of security forces in vast numbers. Political party buildings were attacked, fences were torn down, people were killed.

That is the sort of response which would harm the reputation of any head of state. One assumes that the head of state is responsible for the well-being of a nation's citizens. It is hardly surprising that Jean Ping - Ali Bongo's rival - compared him with the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and said he should appear before the International Criminal Court.

Ali Bongo garnered around 6,000 more votes than Jean Ping. Most of these votes came from Bongo's home region of Haut-Ogooue, where, according to official figures, he secured more than 93 percent of the vote. A call by the UN for a recount was simply ignored by Bongo. Calls by the European Union, France, the United States for the publication of the results of individual polling stations have also gone unheeded.

Dirke Köpp
Dirke Köpp is the head of DW's French for Africa serviceImage: DW

Official comment on the elections from African institutions or leaders has unfortunately not been forthcoming. The African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) have maintained their customary, inglorious silence. Africa's authoritarian leaders are wary of tearing each other's eyes out. Idriss Deby of Chad and Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo have just been reelected at equally questionable elections. Pierre Nkurunzizza's reelection was less recent, but no less controversial. He has been in power illegally for more than a year. He has done what dictators generally do: intimidate the population and ignore all appeals from the community.

A cynical observer might suggest that if Ali Bongo possess the necessary cunning, he will take a leaf out of the book of Deby, Sassou and Nkurunziza. Simply sit tight until the difficulties disappear. Sooner or later the international community will chance upon another trouble spot and Gabon will be forgotten.

The opposition, and in particular, their candidate Jean Ping, a former head of the African Union Commission, must also share the blame for what has happened. They failed to appeal to their supporters to remain calm and desist from violence. Yet that is exactly what one would expect from someone who wanted to become president and who had the well-being of his country at heart. Ping said repeatedly that such appeals were not possible: the population had been attacked and the population was protesting. Those are not the words of a statesman. It is to be feared that if Ping were president, Gabon would have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.