Gabon's Bongo Latest Strongman to Maintain Grip

James Rupert
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 10, 1998

Libreville, Gabon, Dec. 9 -- Today's declaration of victory for President Omar Bongo extends a pattern in this year of presidential elections in West Africa: After nearly a decade of creeping democratization, the region's remaining Cold War-era strongmen are under pressure to retreat but are finding ways to adapt and hang on.

The government of this small, oil-producing state on Africa's Atlantic coast declared overnight that Bongo, who has ruled for 31 years, had won a landslide victory in Sunday's election, giving him another seven years in office. In the past year, entrenched authoritarian leaders have declared election victories and prolonged their rule in Cameroon, Gabon, Togo and Burkina Faso.

As in most of those cases, Bongo's claim of a new mandate has been tainted by a broadly disorganized election and considerable evidence of fraud. Opposition leaders and a source close to Bongo's campaign said the government had organized fraudulent voting on a massive scale. U.S.-based electoral observers in Gabon for the vote acknowledged the doubts about its fairness but said monitoring had been too limited to permit a clear declaration of whether Bongo claims victory fairly or by fraud.

In any case, with his opposition divided, Bongo appears likely to make his claim stick. Western analysts here said his next challenge will be to keep his government solvent and his political clientele loyal as his country slips further into a recession caused by poor sales of oil and timber.

In the past eight years, the end of the Cold War, the fall of South Africa's apartheid regime and domestic pressures have unleashed a wave of pro-democracy uprisings throughout Africa that forced Bongo and other strongmen to begin a grudging political opening. In a few West African countries -- notably Ghana and Benin -- democratization has taken firm enough root to produce repeated free elections.

But Bongo and other strongmen have proved adept at offering mostly the form and only a little of the substance of democracy. Throughout the region, opposition parties and independent or opposition newspapers operate, although they often are threatened -- or journalists are jailed, as they have been in Cameroon and Ivory Coast -- for too directly challenging the president.

In the past year, "we've had a series of elections in which autocrats have hijacked the process, keeping themselves in power," said Chris Fomunyoh, the director for Africa at the National Democratic Institute in Washington. In Togo and Gabon, the presidents had been forced by popular uprisings in the early '90s to allow the first independent election commissions in their countries to run elections.

But in Gabon, Bongo passed a law returning many election functions to the Interior Ministry, which is a police and security agency. In June, Togolese President Gnassingbe Eyadema -- the only leader in sub-Saharan Africa who has held power longer than Bongo -- dissolved his election commission the day after elections by pressing some of its members to quit. He then had the vote counted by his top security aide instead.

Last month, Burkina Faso's president, Blaise Compaore, won 87 percent of the vote in an election boycotted by the country's main opposition groups, which said electoral authorities were under the president's control. Compaore seized power in a coup 11 years ago and won another widely boycotted election in 1990.

Gabon remained calm today despite fears that Bongo's proclaimed reelection might spark riots, as it did after 1993 elections. The government said Bongo had won 66 percent of the vote, a margin that surprised even Bongo's campaign officials, said a source close to the campaign who asked not to be named for fear of losing his job.

The claim of a landslide was facilitated by the deep divisions of the opposition, whose main party split into three factions in recent months. But amid chaotic organization and reports of fraud, it was unclear how much of Bongo's victory was real or manufactured.

One mystery is Gabon's total number of registered voters. The election commission chairman said Saturday that about 585,000 voters were registered for the election. Today, Bongo's spokesman, Andre Mba Obame, reported 626,000 registered.

But "that is demographically impossible," said David Mbadinga, an aide to Pierre Mamboundou, an opposition presidential candidate. Gabon's 1993 census, adjusted for growth, estimates "only a total of perhaps 950,000 Gabonese . . . which would mean two-thirds of the people are old enough and registered" to vote, he said.

Bongo's daughter, Pascaline, one of his aides, acknowledged Monday that the voters' lists "still need to be cleaned up" and said that would be done soon.

Opposition politicians said employees of the government's document printing service had acknowledged printing massive numbers of false identity documents to permit multiple voting by Bongo's supporters. Foreign journalists watched Bongo supporters distribute such documents in Libreville from a business owned by a Bongo aide during the vote Sunday, and the source close to the Bongo campaign said many such distribution centers had operated.

Bongo must wrestle with a financial crisis, a Western diplomat said. While he has become rich as ruler of an oil-producing state, his government is nearly broke and will have trouble paying January salaries, an economic analyst said. Gabon is failing to meet conditions of the International Monetary Fund for an ongoing credit program, "and Bongo is going to have to renegotiate an agreement" with the IMF in the coming months, another analyst said. The IMF will require him to slash government spending, including jobs -- a step that will create new potential for civil upheaval and defections by Bongo allies.