By Michelle DeFreese
Elections have dominated the headlines in 2016. It seems that every major region of the world has been affected by electoral turbulence this year. But Gabon's 2016 presidential election failed to garner the attention of international media despite widespread voter fraud, corruption, and political violence that culminated in the arson of the parliament building in Libreville and left as many as 100 people dead. The stakes are high in oil-rich Gabon, and the election is a troubling sign for economic development and political governance trends in Central Africa.
In Gabon, the costs of maintaining the status quo are high. Authoritarian rule has stifled reform and economic growth, which, compounded with Gabon's oil wealth, has led to staggering economic inequality. Meanwhile, the precedent of 50 years of Bongo family rule left voters with little confidence in incumbent Ali Bongo's integrity. Bongo, the son of former President Omar Bongo, was challenged by veteran diplomat Jean Ping. With years of diplomatic service and experience as Chairperson of the Commission of the African Union, Ping won the support of would-be political rivals early in the presidential race. Candidate Roland Desire Aba-a Minko and three other presidential hopefuls withdrew and supported Ping to challenge Bongo.
Despite strong political opposition and activism, indications of voter fraud and corruption were prevalent. Haut-Ogooue province--a stronghold of the incumbent Ali Bongo--reported a 99.93 percent voter turnout with 95 percent of the votes in favor of the president. By comparison, the overall voter participation rate in the country was 59.26 percent. Although called a "clear anomaly" by EU election observers, the election result was upheld by the country's constitutional court and electoral commission.
After the results were announced, Libreville erupted in violence. The parliament building was set on fire by opposition demonstrators protesting the election results. As many as 1,100 arrests were made with estimates of the number of casualties of post-election violence dead ranging from three to one-hundred. The severity of the public reaction and swiftness of the response resembled the protests that followed the 2009 election--a pattern that may very well repeat itself in the 2023 elections.
There are few options for intervention in Gabon. Upon opposition leader Ping's insistence, the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened a preliminary probe on September 29, 2016 to determine whether or not it will proceed with a formal investigation into the post-election violence. In addition, a delegation led by Chad's Idriss Déby has been sent by the African Union to mediate the dispute. The United Nations, for its part, did not intervene. And while France, the United States, and the European Union have called for the results of the polling stations to be released, the request has been refused.
Still, the region's electoral bodies and commissions, as well as external mediators, have largely failed. The lack of confidence in external mediators and trust in internal powers, as well as perceived superficial adherence among the international community to democratic norms, has frustrated the region's citizens and the diaspora abroad.
In an international system plagued by inaction, failures to address anomalies and abuses of transitions of power are precursors to more significant crises. For now, with another seven years of Bongo family rule secured, progress on reducing Gabon's income inequality is unlikely. With looming austerity measures for the 2017 fiscal year, the World Bank anticipates budget cuts for the health sector, which will further constrain services to the country's most vulnerable populations.
Reinforced by the malaise of the structures designed to oversee transitions of power, the cycles of wealth inequality and disproportionate political influence persist in Central Africa. Unresponsive political systems enable political strongmen and dynasties. Without incentives for institutions to implement change and allow citizens greater political influence, the juxtaposition of poverty and power remains at the core of the continent.
Michelle DeFreese is an Academic Think Tank member with the International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS) and is a member of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). She completed her Master's degree in International Relations at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) and is an Africa Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.