Gabon: a few months before the elections, a tense political climate

It was almost a formality

Gabon: a few months before the elections, a tense political climate

It was almost a formality. Thursday, March 23, the deputies of the Gabonese Assembly voted with 113 votes, out of a total of 122, the future constitutional reform. The text introduces several new features, including a one-round ballot for all elections, the non-limitation of terms of office or a reduction in the duration of presidential and local terms of office from seven to five years. These measures, which must now be validated by the Senate, are the result of a political consultation carried out in Libreville between President Ali Bongo Ondimba and the opposition, from February 13 to 23. During these ten days, elected officials from the ruling party and opponents exchanged their ideas in "a friendly atmosphere", and "draw conclusions that go in the direction of appeasement", said Louis-Gaston Mayila, president of the opposition coalition PG41 to RFI, following these meetings.

A few days earlier, from February 8 to 11, the Constitutional Court had carried out an awareness campaign defining the different aspects of the electoral process. And, on January 24, Prime Minister Alain-Claude Bilie-By-Nze promised that his government would work to bring together "all the conditions necessary for political dialogue".

If the authorities in power have been trying for several weeks to promote dialogue, it is because the country is preparing to experience next August, for the first time in its history, a triple presidential, legislative and local election. And that he does not wish to relive the acute crisis which followed the controversial re-election of Ali Bongo Ondimba, 64, including thirteen in power. At the time, the opposition rejected the results, announced after four days of waiting: according to official figures, the outgoing head of state won with 49.80% of the vote, against 48.23 % for his opponent, Jean Ping. Violence then broke out between the police and demonstrators who expressed their discontent in the streets of the Gabonese capital.

Despite the efforts made to guarantee "Polls with peaceful aftermath", according to the Head of State, the political dialogue in Gabon is, however, still far from being acquired. Some opposition leaders, like Paulette Missambo, president of the National Union party (UN), and Alexandre Barro Chambrier, head of the Rassemblement pour la patrie et la modernité (RPM), did not wish to participate in the presidential consultation. "A missed opportunity", estimated the latter to AFP, who regrets that the subjects on "the transparency of the elections" were not sufficiently addressed. Bonanventure Mve Ondo, philosopher and professor at the Omar-Bongo University in Libreville, also wonders about the real outlets of this outstretched presidential hand. “More than a consultation, it would have required a real political debate, and above all register this event in a proactive approach. Are the decisions made from these discussions sufficient? Will they truly move forward? These are questions that, for me, remain unanswered. »

Charles M'Ba, executive of the National Union (UN) and former finance minister of Omar Bongo Ondimba, is no more convinced by these meetings instituted by the authorities. “Words of love are good, but proofs of love are better,” he sums up. Listening to your opponents is a good thing. Now we have to work. Today, the country is at peace, yes, but that does not prevent me from being worried for the months to come. »

Especially since Ali Bongo Ondimba, earlier in his mandate, expressed a completely different behavior towards his opponents. Alain Djally and Hervé Mombo Kinga, close to Jean Ping, Marcel Libama, trade union official, journalist Juldas Biviga… all of them, during the year 2017, were arrested in the context of their activities, and suffered violence. "Arbitrary arrests" denounced by Amnesty International, which also states that Juldas Biviga was "beaten" during his detention. "Suffering from injuries to his ankles, ribs and ears", his condition necessitated a transfer to hospital. Hervé Mombo Kinga, accused of "incitement to violence" and "contempt of the head of state" after the public dissemination of videos, was kept in solitary confinement for a month and a half.

More recently, it was Jean-Rémy Yama, president of Dynamique unitaire, Gabon's largest trade union coalition, who suffered the wrath of the authorities. On February 27, 2022, as he was preparing to go to Dakar to receive medical treatment, this active member of Tournons la page-Gabon (TLP-Gabon) was arrested at Libreville airport by representatives of the General Directorate of Counter-Intelligence and Military Security. He was then taken to an unknown destination. On March 2, 2022, Jean-Rémy Yama was finally charged with "breach of trust" in a case of the construction of staff housing for teachers, and placed in pre-trial detention at the Libreville central prison. A fate reserved for opponents far, therefore, from the appeasement advocated today by the president.

These persistent tensions with the opposition, still relevant a few months before the election, are not the only storms experienced by the government during this presidential term: even within the presidential camp, the past seven years have been eventful. At the end of 2019, a wave of political arrests led to the dismissal of around twenty relatives of the former chief of staff of the head of state, Brice Laccruche, for alleged acts of embezzlement of public funds. To everyone's surprise, the Franco-Gabonese was also sacked, imprisoned and sentenced to five years in prison for various cases. These arrests, carried out under the guise of the fight against corruption, illustrate the divisions at work in the close entourage of Ali Bongo Ondimba. The president, "the one who is softly called 'the other', has only partially followed his father's policy of regional and ethnic balance, preferring to surround himself with a small clique of men sure. […] So he made a lot of enemies in his own camp, ”wrote Florence Bernault, professor at the University of Wisconsin, in late 2018 in an article published on The Conversation site.

On January 7, 2019, a little over a month after the head of state's stroke, the presidency even wavered. That morning, while the president was recovering in Morocco, a group of mutineers led by Lieutenant Ondo Obiang forced their way into the headquarters of Gabonese Radio and Television (RTG). Three soldiers from the Republican Guard then appear on the screen in fatigues and an assault rifle in their hands, the officer saying he wants to "save the country from chaos". The putsch attempt finally quickly fizzled out. Two putschists were killed by the security forces and Ondo Obiang and the military, arrested.

But these seven years of political unrest have left their mark, and "heavily damaged the confidence of Gabonese in the state, but also in the entire system that constitutes it: its administration, its school and judicial system and its police", deplores Charles M'Ba. And relying on the opposition is still difficult for the population, not only because of the threats that still weigh on some of its representatives but also because of its inability to unite. “All the difficulty is there, breathes Bonaventure Mve Ondo. It doesn't feel like there's a plan. However, after 2016, there was an expectation, a hope. But nothing has moved. For the future and for the guarantee of real appeasement, the philosopher hopes for "new political mechanisms, such as a government of national unity". "All political actors today are focused on the quest for power, instead of being preoccupied with the fate of the Gabonese people who are doing everything they can to survive from day to day. »