Violent scenes erupted in Gabon’s capital, Libreville, following the announcement of the presidential election results on 31 August 2016. According to the final result, the incumbent, President Ali Bongo, won with 49.8% of the vote narrowly defeating the opposition candidate, former African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson Jean Ping. However, Ping has already disputed the outcome of the result alleging fraud and demanding a recount stating that, “That man [Bongo], I believe, is used to cheating, always. And the population is not accepting this type of remake of cheating every seven years”. Ping has also called for the results from each polling station to be made public.
In the protests following the results announcement on 31 August, the country’s parliament building was set on fire in an apparent arson attack in the early hours of 1 September 2016. In retaliation, security forces stormed the opposition’s headquarters claiming to be looking for those responsible for the fire. Two people died during this raid. Protests have continued on 1 September in at least nine suburbs of Libreville, with explosions and gunfire reported in the neighbourhood of Nkembo.
Bongo, the leader of the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), has ruled the country following the death of his father, Omar Bongo, in 2009 who had been president of Gabon for over four decades. Although he was expected to win the election, there were suspicions that the elections would not be free and fair with the Bongo family unwilling to give up their almost 50-year control of Gabon.
Although there was minimal violence during the campaign period, the run-up to the election was marked by heightened rhetoric with both sides alleging that the other was fomenting violence and intending to rig the vote. Ping went so far as to pre-emptively declare himself the victor on 28 August 2016, saying that if Bongo won it could only be through fraud. After these statements, security forces were deployed throughout Libreville in an apparent expectation of the post-election violence.
International observers, including the European Union (EU) and the United States (US) have also called for the details of the results to be made public to ensure transparency and an end to the political crisis. This is due to the fact that Gabon’s election officials do not release the results progressively as counting is underway (for example like South Africa) , but rather, only make an announcement once the final vote tally is complete.
Thus far it appears unlikely that either side is willing to back down over their respective claims on the presidency despite the escalating violence in the capital which threatens to spread into other regions of the country. However, it should be noted, that Bongo has control over the state security apparatus and appears to be willing to use it to maintain power; as illustrated by the 1 September raid on the opposition headquarters.
Violent clashes are expected to continue in the coming days in Libreville; and although the violence is currently isolated to the capital, it does have the potential to spread throughout the country. As the protests continue, it is increasingly likely that security forces will be authorised to use heavier-handed tactics; accordingly, there is a strong possibility of further clashes between protesters and security forces which will likely lead to a further loss of life.