/ 1 September 2009

Gabon urged to stay calm before poll outcome

African Union (AU) observers called for calm and Gabon’s security forces stepped up patrols in the capital on Tuesday as election officials further delayed the result of a hotly contested presidential vote.

Three rivals, including the son of Gabon’s late ruler Omar Bongo, have all claimed victory in Sunday’s election in the central African oil nation. Authorities dismissed as speculation the unofficial estimates being circulated by rival camps.

”The figures doing the rounds do not in our view have any firm basis,” Rene Aboghe Ella, president of the election commission, told reporters, adding that the commission would meet to verify the results on Wednesday.

”This is the standard timeframe, and one we have observed in the past,” he said.

Opposition leaders accuse ex-defence minister Ali Ben Bongo of rigging the poll to ensure a dynastic transfer of power from his father, but election monitors and ex-colonial power France have said they are broadly satisfied with procedures so far.

”The mission calls on the candidates … and the entire population to ensure peace and democracy is maintained in Gabon by sticking to dialogue,” Albert Tevoedjre, head of the AU election observer team in Gabon, said on Tuesday.

Omar Bongo’s death in June, aged 73, ended nearly 42 years of rule that brought stability to Gabon but also allegations that he lavished petrodollars on family and friends rather than using them to alleviate still widespread poverty.

Ben Bongo (50) had long been tipped as the favourite and was quick to declare victory on Monday. But that call was disputed by former interior minister Andre Mba Obame and by Pierre Mamboundou, one of the few rival candidates with no history of ties to Bongo. Both of Ben Bongo’s rivals also claimed victory.

A Reuters witness said anti-riot police had been deployed to Libreville’s Place de la Paix, one of the squares often used for political gatherings, while Republican Guard soldiers had joined the usual gendarme presence outside some government buildings.

Democracy test
Gabon’s electoral system allows for only one round of voting, meaning that a candidate need only win more votes than his nearest rival rather than the majority of the ballots cast.

Some analysts have said this clearly favours Ben Bongo as his opponents fielded more than 20 candidates and struggled to unite behind a single challenger until a handful dropped out to back Obame two days ahead of the vote.

”It is wait-and-see for the moment,” said strategist Ridle Markus at Absa Capital Research of the investment outlook.

”There is no real risk or reason why they [investors] should get out. But at the same time we would be advising them not to go in until there is clarity about the result and in particular the reaction to the result,” he added.

Gabon hosts oil firms including France’s Total and United States-based Vaxalco, and is one of the few sub-Saharan countries to have launched a Eurobond.

The vote is the latest democracy test in a region that has seen a string of disputed polls and power grabs over the past year, including the move by Niger’s president to extend his term in office, and a disputed Congo Republic election won by the long-serving incumbent.

Some fear a transfer of power from Bongo father to son would encourage other ageing African leaders to groom their offspring for future rule, for example in Senegal and Libya where leaders’ sons are already in high-profile positions.

Analysts say any successor to Bongo will have to cope with dwindling oil reserves that will mean the loss of some revenue in the sector, which currently makes up half of national output. — Reuters