Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

‘No pure Gabonese’

Violence has erupted to the surface in Gabon after incumbent Ali Bongo declared himself the winner in the recent presidential elections, writes Haitham Nouri

Al-Ahram Weekly

Violence in the oil-rich country of Gabon, located in West Africa, has escalated since Wednesday, after the government announced that President Ali Bongo had beaten his presidential competitor Jean Ping by a small margin.

According to Western media reports, more than five people were killed in the three days following the announcement, and more than 800 members of the opposition were arrested in Libreville alone, along with 400 more around the country, according to the interior minister.

Ping, the former chairperson of the Commission of the African Union, told the BBC that a presidential guard helicopter shelled his main campaign office in the capital, killing two people. AFP reported that two private television channels were attacked, Radio Television Nazareth and Tele Plus, both loyal to the government.

Bongo was re-elected with 49.8 per cent of the vote, while his competitor got 48.2 per cent, with a difference of just 5,594 votes.

But the opposition leader questions the official result, claiming that Bongo won by rigging the vote.

Ali Bongo assumed the presidency in 2009, succeeding his father Omar, who came to power following a military coup in 1967, seven years after the country won its independence from France. Omar Bongo had great influence in French political circles thanks to a network of economic relations based on oil. Gabon is the second largest oil producer in West Africa, with a population of a little under one million.

But Gabonese citizens do not enjoy this wealth. Nearly half the population lives on less than $2 a day. In his final years, Papa Bongo, as the local media called Omar Bongo, groomed his son to succeed him, passing over his other 50 sons and daughters who share their father’s enormous wealth. In late 2014, French journalist Pierre Péan released a controversial book in Paris claiming that Ali Bongo was a Nigerian orphaned in the Biafran war (1967-1970). The allegation sparked widespread protests in the country.

In New African Scandals, Péan claimed that Ali Bongo falsified his birth certificate to assume power, since the Gabonese constitution denies the presidency to any person born from foreign parents. He would also have been obliged to return his inheritance from Omar Bongo, estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Several months later, one of Omar Bongo’s daughters, Onaida Maisha, 25, sued in a court in France, where most of the Bongo wealth is thought to be, citing the allegations in the book. The court ordered the president of Gabon to release his birth certificate.

The situation is not unheard of in African and global politics. There have long been rumours that the US president was born out of the US, which would deny him the country’s highest office. In Africa, the president of Ivory Coast was denied presidential candidacy on the grounds that he is not of Ivorian extraction, but from neighbouring Burkina Faso. Both Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Democratic Congo President Joseph Kabila have been accused of being from Rwanda.

Some of Bongo’s opponents scathingly observe that the closeness between Libreville and Washington is based on the similar rumours facing the two presidents. More seriously, the basis of the close ties is the stability enjoyed by Gabon in a region marred by unrest, from the war on terrorism to sectarian fighting, tribal conflict, and severe poverty and deeply rooted dictatorship.

The Gabonese president insisted he was born in 1959 in Brazzaville, the capital of what was then French Equatorial Africa (FAE). The region was later split into four states, Congo Brazzaville, Chad, Central Africa and Gabon in 1960.

Months after the lawsuit, the French city of Nantes, which holds all birth certificates for people born in FAE, produced Ali Bongo’s birth certificate.

Despite the president’s denial of the allegations, he pursued the same line against the opposition candidate, to no avail.

Ping is the son of a Chinese immigrant, who worked in trade, and a Gabonese mother. For years, Ping was Omar Bongo’s closest advisor, holding several high-level posts, most recently foreign minister and deputy prime minister, before his country was in line to head the Commission of the African Union.

According to Quartz Africa, a Website for African news and analysis, Ping’s relations with the late president were not only political, but familial as well. Ping was involved with one of Omar Bongo’s daughters and had two children with her.

Ping’s father came to Gabon in the colonial period after years in a Peugeot motorcycle factory.

During his campaign, Ping said his half-Chinese origins could help Gabon, especially given China’s strong involvement in developing infrastructure on the African continent.

Years ago, Ping arranged a visit by former Chinese president Hu Jintao and he played a major role in pushing trade between the two countries over $700 million — not a small amount considering that Gabon’s population does not exceed one million.

Speaking to Quartz Africa, Ping said: “My father Cheng Zhiping left his home in Wenzhou in southeast China in the 1920s, heading for France to work at the Peugeot motorcycle factory.”

“He then left for work in the jungles of the Fernan Vaz area on the Atlantic Ocean in Gabon,” Ping said. There he met Germaine Anina, Ping’s mother.

“This cultural mix had a great impact on my childhood,” Ping said. “It gave me an early awareness of the world around me.”

According to Quartz Africa, the news of Ping’s presidential candidacy was cause for joy to the residents of Wenzhou, who believed that his victory would strengthen ties between Beijing and Libreville and give Chinese companies that have been unlucky in Gabon a better chance.

But this will not be easy considering the previous disagreements between the government of Gabon and Sinopec. The dispute only ended after the Chinese firm paid a settlement of $400 million. Popular protests also stopped work on a Chinese project to extract iron ore.

Whoever the next president of Gabon is, he will face economic challenges due to declining global oil prices, which are hindering government efforts to develop the country.

If Ping is able to force Ali Bongo out, he could put an end to the rule of a family that has governed Gabon since its independence. A Ping victory could even encourage opponents of the president of Democratic Congo, the son of Laurent Kabila, as well as the leader of Togo, who also inherited the presidency from his father.

While the end of dictatorships in popular uprisings did not have great results in several Francophone African countries in the 1980s and early 1990s, it at least led to pluralist elections and some development for the middle classes. This is no longer enough, but it is doubtful whether several African states can reach even this point in light of growing unrest and an escalating war on terrorism, which has restored the need for strong, disciplined militaries.

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