/ 30 November 2005

Gabon leader’s re-election sparks riots

Omar Bongo’s re-election as Gabon’s President led to overnight riots, clashes and arrests in the economic capital of Port-Gentil after opposition claims of fraud, witnesses said on Wednesday.

After the interior ministry announced that Bongo, already in power since 1967, had been returned to office for seven more years, scores of youths went on the rampage in the port city in the south-west of the oil-rich Central African country.

Witnesses and an Agence France-Presse correspondent said they smashed up cars, erected street barricades and burned tyres, hurling stones at riot police and troops who went in and tear-gassed them.

The working-class Port-Gentil districts of Banko, Salsa and Matiti have long been strongholds of opposition to Bongo, like parts of the capital, Libreville, where people by contrast accepted his win with a resigned calm and tension eased.

Soldiers in Port-Gentil said most youths they clashed with were aged between 15 and 20, while police said they had arrested ”several youths” but refused to give figures.

The city had been one of the few where a main opposition candidate, Pierre Mamboudou, came out ahead of Bongo (69), who won Sunday’s poll at nationwide level with 79,21% of the ballots cast, according to official figures.

Mamboudou (59) and the other main opposition candidate, former government minister Zacharie Byboto (61), have both claimed there was massive fraud in the vote, but the former’s campaign director, David Tona-Ngoye, on Wednesday again urged supporters of the opposition Union of the Gabonese People to stay calm.

Port-Gentil was calm on Wednesday morning and no major incidents were reported in Libreville.

Turnout in the former French colony was officially put at 63,3% of the nearly 555 000 Gabonese eligible voters. The opposition contested the results even before they were announced.

Just hours before Tuesday’s official declaration, Mamboundou was declaring himself the winner as the candidate for change, while Myboto called the results ”fabricated”.

However, international observers, including the International Organisation of Francophone Countries and the Economic Community of Central African States, found the election to have ”largely” met international standards for a democratic vote.

”In the polling stations visited, the presidential vote … took place in a calm atmosphere, free and transparent, according to a regular electoral process, largely conforming to international standards,” international observers said in a joint statement.

Bongo was supported by a political coalition of more than 40 parties and has maintained an iron grip on the media, while using substantial financial clout to campaign.

Anaclet Bissielo, a sociologist, said there is widespread disillusionment over high unemployment, poverty and a poor education system, but little expectation of change.

”The Gabonese don’t believe any more in a political system that has become totally artificial,” Bissielo said. — Sapa-AFP