/ 28 August 2009

Gabon presidential hopefuls in row over ‘unity’ candidate

A bid to promote a unity candidate in Gabon’s presidential election appeared to have backfired on Friday, as four contenders denied having pulled out of the race to rally behind a rival.

All four dismissed a statement issued earlier on Friday saying they had agreed to back former minister Andre Mba Obame in a bid to beat frontrunner Ali Bongo Ondimba, son of the former president Omar Bongo Ondimba.

The original statement, sent to Agence France-Presse by Mba Obame’s camp, said 11 candidates for Sunday’s presidential election had pulled out of the race to back him.

It said the candidates had chosen Mba Obame as their preferred candidate at a secret ballot during a meeting chaired by former prime minister Jean Eyeghe Ndong, which finished early on Friday.

Associates of Eyeghe Ndong and of Mba Obame had confirmed the development to Agence France-Presse.

But some of those listed in the statement swiftly issued denials.

A spokesperson for Casimir Oye Mba, former minister for mines, oil and hydrocarbons, denied he had joined the new alliance. Oye Mba is seen as one of the frontrunners in Sunday’s contest.

”It’s not true,” said Gilbert Etoughe, Oye Mba’s adviser. ”We do not agree on the choice of Mba Obame.”

Three other presidential hopefuls — Victoire Lasseni Duboze, Bruno Ben Moubamba and Jules Aristide Bourdes Ogouliguende — also denounced their inclusion in the statement.

”It’s a dirty trick,” Moubamba told Agence France-Presse, saying he was still in the race.

”It’s manipulation,” said the campaign leader of Duboze. ”We are maintaining our candidature.”

Henri Sene Ingueza, a deputy in the Parliament and general secretary of Bourdes Ogouliguende’s party, also spoke of manipulation.

Earlier on Friday an adviser to Mba Obmame, Jean Gaspard Ayi Ntoutoume, had confirmed details of the original statement to Agence France-Presse.

”The negotiations have been long,” he said. ”There was voting by secret ballot late into the night and it is Andre Mba Obame who emerged as the winner.”

A member of Eyeghe Ndong’s camp had also confirmed the statement, saying Mba Obame had won more votes than the former prime minister. On Tuesday, Eyeghe Ndong had called for a single candidate to run against Ondimba.

As things stand, Ondimba remains the overwhelming favourite to succeed his father: he enjoys the backing of the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party and has a huge campaign war chest.

Omar Bongo ruled Gabon for 41 years until his death in June.

Many opposition figures have complained during the campaign that the result is fixed in advance and that Ali Bongo is already assured of completing a father-son succession.

Gabon is sub-Saharan Africa’s fourth biggest oil producer, the world’s third biggest provider of manganese and Africa’s second biggest wood exporter.

Yet poverty and corruption are a huge problem — an estimated 60% of the population live below the poverty level. — Sapa-AFP