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Tense Gabon awaits court ruling on presidential vote

President of the Gabonese Constitutional Court Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo (C) takes her seat ahead of a hearing at the Constitutional Court in Libreville on September 22, 2016. Gabon's constitutional court is to rule as early as Friday who will be the country's next president, ending weeks of uncertainty after disputed polls sparked a political crisis and violent protests. / AFP PHOTO / STEVE JORDAN

President of the Gabonese Constitutional Court Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo (C) takes her seat ahead of a hearing at the Constitutional Court in Libreville on September 22, 2016.<br />Gabon’s constitutional court is to rule as early as Friday who will be the country’s next president, ending weeks of uncertainty after disputed polls sparked a political crisis and violent protests. / AFP PHOTO / STEVE JORDAN

Tension mounted in Gabon Friday as the nation awaited a final ruling by the Constitutional Court on who will be the next president following a bitterly-contested election that triggered days of deadly violence.

Fear is high that a ruling in favour of President Ali Bongo, who won by a wafer thin margin provoking charges of fraud, could spark a fresh wave of furious opposition protests like those which followed the announcement of his victory.

With the country in political limbo for nearly a month, the court was to rule on whether to uphold Bongo’s victory by fewer than 6,000 votes, or to overturn it.

Defeated challenger Jean Ping, a career diplomat and a former top official at the African Union, filed a legal challenge earlier this month, demanding a recount.

Across the capital Libreville, the atmosphere was on a knife-edge with riot police deployed at key junctions across the city in order to head off any more unrest should the judges decide against 73-year-old Ping.

Wary locals were also stockpiling food to last through the weekend, worried that any fresh unrest could see the streets blocked with roadblocks and checkpoints.

Officers in riot gear had fanned out through the city on Thursday ahead of the decision, blocking off traffic along a seafront road close to the court which also runs alongside the presidential palace although by Friday morning, it had been reopened.

Ping has warned the country could face serious instability if the court rejects his appeal for a recount.

But Gabonese ministers have vowed to maintain order, and warned Ping he could be held responsible if fresh violence breaks out.

– Court under huge pressure –
The court met on Thursday and has retired to consider its verdict. Under the constitution, the 15-day deadline for resolving electoral disputes is Friday, although the announcement could still be delayed until Saturday.

“The case is under deliberation,” said the court’s president Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo, a former beauty queen and one-time mistress of Bongo’s father who now holds this oil-rich nation’s fate in her hands.

Ping has made clear he believes Bongo has the court in his pocket, referring to it as “the Tower of Pisa that always leans the same way”.

And his entourage was infuriated by remarks Mborantsuo made in an interview with the weekly Jeune Afrique on September 15.

“I have to say that it is rare that the choice of reversal (of the vote results) is used,” she said, with Ping supporters saying it showed she was biased.

“Nobody wants to be in Mborantsuo’s shoes,” said a diplomatic source. “She is under enormous pressure from both camps.”

The small west African nation of 1.8 million people had erupted in protest after Bongo was declared the winner following an election sparked claims of fraud.

In the chaos that erupted after the announcement, demonstrators set fire to the parliament and clashed violently with police, who launched a fierce crackdown arresting around a thousand people.

Opposition figures say “more than 50” people were killed in the violence, but the government gave a figure of three dead.

– Bongo’s fiefdom under scrutiny –
In his legal challenge, Ping asked for a recount in Haut-Ogooue province, a stronghold of the Bongo family who have ruled Gabon since 1967. Bongo won more than 95 percent of votes there on a declared turnout of more than 99 percent.

Following the poll, EU election observers said there had been a “clear anomaly” in the results from the province.

On Tuesday, lawyers for the two sides said they had agreed to a recount although they disagreed over the scope of it.

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