Digests | September 7, 2012

The Return of the Opposition in Gabon


“I left Gabon in a wheelchair; I’ll come back on my two legs. People that have said I’m dead and gone had better prepare to fight against my ghost.”

-Gabon’s main opposition leader Andre Mba Obame in July 2012

After 14 months of exile the leader of Gabon’s outlawed Union Nationale (UN) party Andre Mba Obame, returned to Libreville on August 11th to be greeted by a few hundred supporters at Leon M’ba International Airport. His arrival marked the return of an opposition party in the Central African state, as since the death of Pierre Mamboundou in October 2011, leader of the UPG (Union of the Gabonese People), politics had been dominated by President Ali Bongo Ondimba. Son of Omar Bongo who ruled Gabon for 42 years until his death, Ali Bongo’s first term as the new leader of the Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG) began in September 2009 after a controversial electoral victory. The outcome was challenged by his opponent Mr. Obame claiming widespread fraud, but even after the constitutional court affirmed the result, violent protests broke out across the nation. A longtime powerful minister in Omar Bongo’s regime, Obame switched sides after the PDG rejected his candidacy for succession and chose the president’s son to lead the party, thus solidifying the political and personal divide between the two Gabonese policymakers.

A year and a half later and the creation of his new Union Nationale opposition party, Mba Obame declared a stolen election proclaiming himself the victor and the rightful leader of Gabon, complete with a formal inauguration and the selection of a parallel cabinet. These actions led to charges of “disturbing public order” and “threatening state authority,” leading Obame to seek refuge in the local United Nations compound.  In his final days in Gabon before flying to France for “heath reasons,” his Union Nationale party was banned and diplomatic immunity removed, leaving Mr. Obame vulnerable to arrest and prosecution. Therefore the stage was set for a dramatic political clash at the capital airport.  But surprisingly the opposition leader’s landing was undisturbed, and he returned home comfortably.  The army observed from a far and PDG authorities proclaimed that Andre Mba Obame’s return was simply a “non event.”

This semblance of calm was short-lived as on the 15th of August Andre Mba Obame’s supporters took to the streets.  They were met with tear gas and batons, as police were quickly called upon to disband an outlawed party’s unauthorized demonstration.  Protestors threw rocks and bottles and after an afternoon of confrontation, one woman had died, dozens were injured, and over 63 people were arrested.  The crackdown continued after the streets had settled, as masked gunmen burnt a TV station transmitter[1] owned by Mr. Mba Obame, heightening tension between rival party members.

Political posturing followed as the public prosecutor for the Gabonese capital reiterated her firm intention to arrest the “public nuisance,” to which Mr. Obame defiantly responded to the government challenge “Go on. I dare them.”  Union Nationale representatives have reiterated the calls of the Gabonese Diaspora for a sovereign national conference[2] and sweeping reforms, which Ali Bongo instantly rejected, dismissing the notion of a political crisis in Gabon.

Yet on the 25th of August, ten days after their initial demonstration, 1500 Union Nationale supporters held an official rally in party headquarters where Andre Mba Obame addressed his followers and his accusers in a determined and passionate speech.  This time the police stayed back, following the interior minister’s guidelines that the rally would be allowed if they remained within the confines of their reopened office in Libreville.  The attendees obliged, and returned home without incident, passing the mobilized gendarmes on their way.

In addition to the party’s rally, other segments of civil society have also begun to voice their concern. The influential movement Ça Suffit Comme Ça released a damming communiqué calling for the release of the political prisoners from the August 15th demonstrations.  According to their report, the incarcerated 63 have been subject to torture and degrading treatment over the past few weeks, contrary to Gabon’s international treaty obligations.

These developments all speak to impact of Obame’s return, helping to invigorate a previously disillusioned opposition party and reviving voices of discontent.  The interior minister’s decision to stand down and to allow the banned Union Nationale the right to assemble seems to reflect an understanding by the PDG that an arrest of Obame may no longer be politically feasible. To do so would almost certainly reignite the violent post-electoral clashes of 2009, and perhaps an even broader political crisis. With soaring food prices, a completely oil-based economy, dissatisfied unions and high youth unemployment; this is an additional problem that Ali Bongo would be smart to avoid.

As of the 7th of September the standoff continues, as the government has yet to engage the banned opposition and their growing calls for dialogue.  Today in the southern city of Mouila, Union Nationale party members and new opposition voices have begun to draft a common declaration to submit to the government on the terms of a sovereign national conference.  Ali Bongo’s response will dictate the trajectory of this political confrontation. On the one hand he could help pacify the resistance by providing political space for the opposition and reinstating the banned party, perhaps in return for their recognition of his ruling status. But if the violent crackdown of the 15th of August is the chosen reply, the President of the Gabonese Republic may have helped inspire a threat truly worthy of his concern.

[1] This article, as well as many others was written in French. All translations and interpretations are very much my own, unless otherwise attributed.

[2] Although the details of such a conference have yet to be defined, the establishment of new national union government and revised constitution are two of the desired outcomes.

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