Today voters in the Central African country of Gabon will go to the polls to elect a successor to President El-Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba, who died in May at the age of 73.
It is the first time in more than four decades that Omar Bongo will not be on the ballot -- though his son, 50-year-old Ali-Ben Bongo, is seeking the presidency himself, along with 22 other candidates.
The elder Bongo became president in 1967 upon the death of Leon Mba, Gabon's first post-independence head of state. At the time, Gabon's constitution provided for the succession of the presidency through the vice president and Bongo happened to have recently been elevated to the that office, after serving for a decade in a variety of bureaucratic positions. The Gabonese constitution now calls for a special election to fill the vacancy caused by the death or resignation of a president.
In his 42 years in office, Bongo presided over a remarkably stable country, by African standards. It is one of the few sub-Saharan countries that never had a violent change of government, and political unrest was rare in the Bongo years.
Bongo ruled, sometimes harshly, and, for the first 20 years or so, through a one-party state apparatus. When democratic changes began sweeping through Africa in the early 1990s (not coincidentally, following the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of Washington-Moscow machinations in Africa), Bongo saw the writing on the wall and oversaw the transition to a multi-party state.
A canny politician, Bongo understood well the adage, "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer." He co-opted opposition politicians by giving them cabinet positions and other perks. It's no accident that Gabon is said to have more cabinet officials per capita than any other country in the world. The CIA publication, World Leaders, lists 36 cabinet positions, including four deputy prime ministers and a "Min. of Social Affairs, National Solidarity, & the Protection of Widows & Orphans, in Charge of the Fights Against AIDS." The country's population is 1,514,993 -- you do the math.
In 1998, I was in Gabon during the presidential election and had the opportunity to interview two of the international election monitors who observed the process. The Metro Herald of Alexandria published my interview on March 19, 1999, and here it is:
REFLECTIONS ON AN ELECTION IN GABON
Exclusive to The Metro Herald
Last December The Metro Herald’s Richard Sincere went to Gabon, in. Central Africa, to observe that country’s second democratically-conducted presidential election since its new constitution took effect in 1991. In 1993, the incumbent president, El-Hadj Omar Bongo, won reelection with 51 percent of the vote against a field of 11 challengers. In 1998, Bongo was again reelected, this time with nearly 67 percent of the vote in a field of eight candidates.
According to GERDDES-Afrique, an international organization that works for the advancement of democracy in a Africa, “GERDDES-Afrique was pleased to coordinate election observation in Gabon by an experienced group of international monitors from Africa, Europe, and North America. Over 170 observers arrived in the days before the election to see for themselves the functioning of Gabon’s democracy. To this end, they attended campaign rallies sponsored by all the candidates; they spoke with members of the government and with officials of opposition parties; they were briefed by their own countries’ ambassadors stationed in Gabon; they visited polling places, monitored the news media, and listened to the concerns of voters.
“Monitors came to Gabon from West, Central, and Southern Africa and from as far away as Canada, Great Britain, and the United States. Observers included ambassadors and other diplomats, jurists, former heads of state, professors of law and political science, business executives, journalists, and political party officials.”
After some time to reflect on the election process, The Metro Herald (TMH) was able to talk to two of the international observers, Canada’s Troy Lanigan and Julian West. They were half of a a team that also included University of Sherbrooke Professor Charlotte Lemieux and former British Columbia legislator Nick Loenen. Following are their responses to The Metro Herald’s questions.* * *TMH: Please briefly describe yourself (place of residence, political affiliation, profession, relevant experience).
Lanigan: My background is in political advocacy. I have a degree in political science and economics, have traveled extensively throughout Europe and the former Soviet Bloc. I’ve worked professionally on campaigns and for various organizations in both Canada and the United States for the better part of 12 years. Currently, I reside in Victoria. British Columbia, and am employed full-time by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation by serving as National Communications Director and a spokesman in British Columbia. I also chair the Electoral Change Coalition of British Columbia (ECCO-BC), a multipartisan group of parties, groups, and individuals dedicated to changing the province’s first-past-the-post voting system through a referendum.
West: I live in Ladysmith, British Columbia (on Vancouver Island), where I am organizing chair and Elections BC delegate, Green Party of British Columbia, and Elections Canada delegate, Green Party of Canada. Professionally, I am a mathematician (Ph.D., MIT 1990), and since 1995 instructor at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, BC, and adjunct professor at the University of Victoria. In addition, I am a founding director of ECCO-BC and author of several documents on electoral reform.
TMH: What were your expectations before arriving in Gabon?
Lanigan: To tell you the truth, I really had no idea . . . Gabon would be hot/humid with a lot of black people speaking French in relatively poor conditions . . . that our job as observers was serious and that we would be trained and prepared to do a job.
West: From the limited information I was able to uncover about the country before the trip, I had the impression that it was sufficiently well-off to qualify as a “middle-income” country, virtually the only one in the whole of Africa which was not classified as “poor.” Perhaps naively, I assumed that this implied a certain level of social and political development as well, particularly having read about “relatively free” elections held there in the 1990s. (I’m not unaware that there were until recently a significant number of socialist countries classified as middle-income or higher—but these days I sort of assume that economic development and political development go hand-in-hand.)
TMH: Were these expectations accurate? if not, why not? (Feel free to elaborate.)
Lanigan: As far as Gabon went, our day trip to Lamberene [where Dr. Albert Schweitzer lived and worked] was the highlight … as far as the “observer” business went I had no idea how unorganized everything would be and even when something was half organized it was all [conducted] in French. If not for the books and manuals [we had received in advance], we would have had absolutely no background or grounding prior to the election.
Having said that, I’m glad we learned quickly to ignore scheduled meetings and took the opportunity to meet various campaign workers, attend rallies, and the like. Those encounters we interesting and valuable.
I should add that we got to see and do everything we imagined possible and that did exceed my expectations.
West: Yes and no. I would say that the general levels of education and social and political awareness among the Gabonese I encountered (admittedly a distorted sample, as it tended to be the sort of people one meets in luxury hotels, opposition radio stations, and so forth) were markedly higher than I expected. People seemed genuinely to know what was up with regard to the state of the country and the government. At the polling stations (more reflective of the general population) there was a frank enthusiasm for the democratic process and an air of seriousness about the whole project. This was refreshing.
On the down side, the general state of infrastructure and access to facilities in general was quite depressing once we left the bord de mer [seaside] in downtown Libreville [the capital city of Gabon]. Likewise, the social infrastructure was weak. I didn’t see the University myself but I had the sense it did not have much social impact on the capital. The media seemed underdeveloped. Perhaps this is what you’d expect in a country of only 1.3 million, but I think it would be desirable to see the emergence of a politically independent newspaper (and radio) rather than ones obsessed with the government and the opposition view of politics.
We saw a great many schools and although these were barren, they were clean, and I at least got the impression that schooling was available throughout the country. I also got the impression that this was true for girls as well as boys, and this is perhaps the most important social-development indicator for Third-World us countries.
TMH: How did you pursue your responsibilities as election observers? (For instance, did you attend political rallies, visit party headquarters, talk to voters, read local newspapers, etc.?)
Lanigan: It was never clear what our “responsibilities” were, so we made a lot of it up as we were going along. We did all these things: visited party headquarters, met candidates, attended rallies, spoke with foreign media. (I didn’t have a lot of one-on-one conversations with locals or read local papers because of language barriers, but our team certainly did.) We even had one of the Bucherons organizers come to our hotel to discuss list irregularities. We had a couple discussions with the Canadian Ambassador related to the election as well. I thought we used our time wisely and took in as much as we could.
West: We attended four rallies, although they were uniformly so late in starting that we really only stayed for the speeches at one. These were for the candidates Mba Abessole, Kombila, and Bongo. There was a fourth, but it was sparsely attended and we did not stay long. Following the Abessole rally, which was well attended and for which we were able to observe the entire rally from beginning to end, we were invited to visit the opposition radio station, Radio Soleil, which was being used as a party headquarters for the RNB.
I bought essentially every newspaper I could lay my hands on. Although I didn’t have time to read them all, I did go through all the headlines and read a number of the more relevant articles. I feel I got a general sense of the state of the media, which reminded me strongly of state-controlled publications I had seen elsewhere, such as the China Daily and the former Daily News in Hungary.
I wish I had been able to talk with more voters, but we did encounter quite a lot at the polls, and were able to talk briefly with cab drivers, hotel waiters, etc.
TMH: In your observations, did it appear that all candidates were able to put their case to the voters in a reasonably free and fair fashion?
Lanigan: In one sense yes. We attended a large Abessole rally in which there were military present. They were very friendly, the point of joking with the crowd and rally organizers. There was no intimidation by the military, only the intention to keep the event orderly. There was no restriction on materials distributed or what was said.
In another sense no. There is no question that the incumbent used the power of government to his advantage. On the first day we were there we heard a bunch of sirens and came out of the market to see what was up. It was the state police clearing the street to escort a bus load of Bongo supporters—just one of several examples including Bongo posters exclusively on government buildings, and money coming out the you-know-what, etc.
At one opposition rally they were complaining that the election commission had denied them a rally down by the water front even though Bongo was holding a rally in the same location.
So yes, there was openness, we saw several rallies and advertisements to suggest there was no harassment or intimidation but at the same time opponents of Bongo had the deck stacked against them.
West: Yes. I have no doubts at all about this aspect of the election. In fact, I would say that with regard to equal access to the electorate, this election far exceeded anything I have ever witnessed in Canada or the United States.
TMH: Did you observe any attempts by the government to inhibit or obstruct participation by political activists of an party? Did you see any examples of police or army intimidation of voters or activists?
Lanigan: Yes, I believe there was intimidation at voting stations. In areas of low support for Bongo, there would be a disproportionate amount of military (riot gear, gas canisters, the whole nine yards). One of these stations didn’t get around to opening until past 1:00PM [and] impatient voters left. Four hundred people registered to vote and only four ballots in the box! By “intimidation” it is not necessary to bust heads. We verified in conversation with people that they were intimidated by the military presence. In a couple of places I too was uncomfortable. Julian has more specifics on the different types of military present in different areas, which is important to understanding “intimidation.”
West: I saw a very heavy army presence at the polling station in Lalala which was the focus of an extended discussion in the British [observer team’s post-election] report. Late in the afternoon, I witnessed several ballot boxes containing fewer than 10 ballots from an electoral roll of 500, and one which was entirely empty. I put this down to the army presence—the ballot is not secret if yours is the only one in the box, so no one wants to cast one of the first ballots. In Canada, when a box contains few ballots it is mixed with another box before the count, to preserve the secrecy of the vote. I witnessed that this was not the case in Gabon—boxes were opened and counted in public with as few as half-a-dozen ballots in them. It would have been an easy matter to track which names were crossed off the list as having voted, and therefore to disprove a voter’s claim that he or she had voted a certain way.
The British team observed that another reason for the low turnout at this location was that the station had been moved with inadequate notice to the electors (likely in violation of the election law).
That both these things took place in a known opposition stronghold is a real cause for concern. After the close of polls, we encountered an angry mob who pointed to the situation in Lalala as evidence that the count was being rigged, conducted behind closed doors by army troops rather than openly. Half an hour later, we saw a truckload of riot troops headed south towards Lalala.
TMH: On election day itself did the polling stations operate at or below your expectations? Did it seem that the voter lists were accurate? Were any voters turned away from the polls without having an opportunity to vote? Did you see any voters attempt to vote more than once?
Lanigan: For the most part the polling stations exceeded my expectations I was really struck by the earnest and sincere conduct of the poll officials. Although some arguments broke out over rules and duties of various actors (especially party scrutineers) that was in my view more a function of education and not ill intent.
Yes, there was one outrageous example of a poll president refusing to allow a registered voter to vote because the man looked like he was from Mali. The military did not intervene even though a fight very nearly broke out. We reported the incident immediately. The man should not have been refused a vote. Also, several people were turned away because they were not on the list, they told us the election commission said it was not necessary to re-register if you were on the list in 1993. Apparently everyone had to reregister.
No one I saw attempted to vote more than once.
I have no idea if the voters’ lists were accurate. The opposition parties don’t think so. I really don’t know how we could know this despite our requirement of comparing lists posted outside to the lists held inside by the poll president.
West: In Libreville, I mostly saw disorder, with many stations which had not opened by late morning.
We heard numerous complaints about “doublants” and names missing from the electoral rolls. A person who had registered might be missing from the rolls, or missing a voter’s card, or both. One voter showed us two voting cards which he claimed were both issued to him, one under his French name and one under his African name. We also met polling-station officials who had similar documentary evidence of “doublants.” However, I am generally inclined to accept that this was due to bookkeeping errors rather than fraud. I say this for two reasons.
First, the fact that the recommendations of the advance observer teams that more care be taken around electors lists were not followed—this practically guaranteed that errors would occur. Second, the number of inaccuracies in the lists was not astonishing by Canadian standards—errors of this kind will simply occur when managing a database of hundreds of thousands of voters.
TMH: Were you able to observe the transport of ballot boxes from polling places to the electoral commission? Did they seem to be handled in a secure fashion? Were there any opportunities for fraud or mismanagement at this stage of the process?
Lanigan: No, I did not see the transport of boxes. We were al caught in a small riot immediately after some polls closed. A group of opposition supporters furious that some names were not on a list turned on us. (It frankly seemed to have more to do with a hatred of Bongo than it did any process irregularity. They got even angrier when they realized we didn’t speak French.) Anyway, we finally got back to the car when they surrounded it and started shaking it. To make a long story short, at that point in the evening we had things other than the transport of boxes on our minds.
However, the counts we did see appeared very genuine. We have asked the Ambassador to track down final poll results and we will verify against our own records before submitting our report.
West: No. I was not able to observe this. This is my major concern about the electoral process. Although I believe the campaign was fair and the vote was free, I have no personal evidence to inspire confidence in the count.
I was able to witness the count of half-a-dozen boxes. However, unless I can cross-check the numbers I witnessed with a published list, I have no way of knowing that the vote-totals were not simply fabricated.
I have asked the Canadian ambassador to help me obtain this list, but I have not had a response. In addition to the detailed poll-by-poll list, I would also need some reliable assurance that most of the ballots were dealt with in the way I observed—an open count subject to public scrutiny. If, on the other hand, most were counted behind closed doors, then I can say nothing about the fairness of the election. The exemplary openness and access to media would be beside the point.
TMH: Did you observe any irregularities or mismanagement that might have had an effect on the outcome of the election?
Lanigan: Yes, excessive military presence in what appeared to be select polling areas, either incompetent or corrupted election officials opening the polls at 1:30 in the afternoon (voters left).
West: See my earlier comments about rural areas where turnout was very high (probably above Canadian levels of 65-70 percent) contrasted with urban, opposition-dominated areas where turnout approached zero. Whether this was intimidation, fraud, or mismanagement, it surely had an effect.
TMH: if you were to make suggestions for improving the electoral process in Gabon, what would they be? (Please be as specific as possible.)
Lanigan: Work on ways to build public confidence surrounding the voters list. Just about everyone we spoke to had very little faith in it. Relax on the military already . . . Good question, see what the others say, and I’ll think some more on it.
West: Honestly, I endorse all the recommendations made by the advance team of observers. I was able to see that many of these were not followed, to the overall detriment of the process.
TMH: Would you be willing to serve as an election observer again, in Gabon or in any other country?
Lanigan: Absolutely . . . do you know of any other opportunities in Africa or elsewhere?
West: With the greatest pleasure, in any other country. (Well, at this point perhaps not in Yemen, or maybe Congo. But pretty well any other country.)
TMH: Do you have any other comments on your experience during the Gabonese presidential election?
Lanigan: Yes, “crab facie” is fantastic local dish. I don’t understand why everything is so expensive, even for the locals. Their electoral system (French run-off)—despite some of the pitfalls of process—is far more democratic than Canada’s. Thank you for this opportunity of a lifetime. 1 will never forget it.
West: I once spent four months in Hungary as an undergraduate student. After the program we were asked to write down some comments for the benefit of future participants. Any words I could find fell short of what I wanted to say, so I probably never completed the form at all. One of my buddies, David Wagner (now an associate professor at the University of Waterloo), simply wrote: “an incredible experience.” This became the quotation used on all the publicity posters for the program for the next decade.
Here is my comment on Gabon: “an incredible experience.”
The three photos featured above were taken by me and appeared in The Metro Herald in 1999, in black-and-white. The captions have been modified to reflect the year they were shot.
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