The paradoxes of soft dictatorship

The Obama and Bongo families. Image Credit: Amanda Lucidon via The White House.

For the second time in seven years, violent unrest has followed the presidential election in the small country of Gabon in West Equatorial Africa. The crisis started on August 28, when the candidate of the united opposition, Jean Ping (age 73), declared himself the winner of the presidential election. In the country’s capital, Libreville, people retreated into an anxious pause. Three days later, on August 31, the incumbent president, Ali Bongo (age 57), endorsed the official result announced by the National Electoral Commission (Commission électorale nationale autonome et permanente, or Cénap). Bongo had made a small advance: 49.8% of the votes against 48.2% for Jean Ping, equivalent to 5,594 votes out of a registered total of 627,805.

At the announcement of Bongo’s victory, the streets of Gabon went up in flames. Protesters erected roadblocks and set fire to the National Assembly. The police and the army were dispatched. While the international community multiplied calls for peace and for a recounting of the votes, the UN and the EU encouraged Ping to agree to an official intervention of Gabon’s constitutional court, an institution staffed by judges devoted to Ali Bongo. A delegation headed by the President of Chad, Idriss Déby (himself implicated in electoral corruption) arrived in Libreville on September 21 to help the court’s vote-checking.

On September 24, the constitutional court completed the recount and confirmed Bongo’s victory (with a slightly larger majority: 50.6 % for Bongo to 47.2 % for Ping). Despite the protest of Federica Mogherini, the High Representative for the External Affairs of the European Union, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon soberly “noted” the decision of the court and the election of Ali Bongo.

Gabon is a small country located in the equatorial rainforest, with a population of 1.6 million. Endowed with rich natural resources (oil, manganese, uranium, and lumber), it has proved a bastion of stability in a region undermined by war, violence and social upheaval. Since independence (1960), the country has nurtured strong economic and diplomatic links with France, the former colonial ruler.

In 2009, French president Nicolas Sarkozy made it known that he supported Ali Bongo’s candidacy. Recent scandals, from revelations about the real-estate properties of Gabonese politicians in France to the “ritual crimes” allegedly performed to sustain the influence of selfsame politicians, seem to have strengthened rather than weakened this historical association between the two ruling classes. But, many other Western democracies have also continued, year in and year out, to support the regime in place. Gabon has indeed remained a “soft” dictatorship based on popular politics of regional equilibrium and a fairly successful system of redistribution of national wealth. Both have spared the country from the bloody ethnic conflicts of its neighbours, and tempered the rapacity of the local political class.

Under Omar Bongo (1967-2009), Ali’s late father, the relationship between Gabonese politics and the electorate was built on a flexible system of co-optation called “Union nationale” [national unity], inaugurated in the 1960s by the first president of Gabon, Léon Mba.  Mba surrounded himself with cabinet ministers composed of representatives of all ethnic groups and provinces in the country.  In 1967, Omar Bongo, who succeeded Mba, embraced “Union nationale.” A native of a minority ethnic group (Téké) located in the eastern corner of the country, Bongo’s system of proportional government reassured the public that the only group with a relative demographic advantage, the Fang (approximately 35% of the population), would not monopolize power. To this, he added new forms of political patronage for opponents to his regime, cajoling them into lucrative positions in the government or the administration.

The longevity of the Gabonese political system also lies in the many channels of redistribution that connect politicians (known colloquially as “les Grands”) to ordinary citizens. Even if they siphon off most of the national income, les Grands feed a pyramid of allies, dependents and voters with money, protection and gifts of basic necessities, such as food, clothes, small appliances and medicine. These “donations” tether the Gabonese to the whims of an ostentatious political class that remains firmly in control of the national revenue.

Since the 1950s, the state has maintained tight control on electoral process. The ruling party, the Parti démocratique gabonais (PDG) functions like a well-oiled machine.  In 2016, for example, the Cénap announced the date of the election only eight weeks before the vote. It then restricted the official opening of the election campaign until August 13, fourteen days before the vote. The central government also conducts the census of voters and prints all the voting cards. This year, it took a mere three weeks, from August 8 to August 25, to manufacture and distribute 628,124 cards. One can only imagine the opportunities to discard less compliant voters. Last, but not least, close allies of the president staff appeal courts and arbitration institutions.  For instance, Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo – a former lover of Omar Bongo – has been at the helm of the constitutional court for many years.

Ali Bongo suffers a poor reputation among ordinary Gabonese: many refer to him as “le Diable” (the Devil), and see him as an intruder.  Rumors among the population suggest that he was born of unknown parents in Nigeria, then adopted and raised by Omar Bongo and his wife. The public shuns Ali’s obscure origins, his long military training in Morocco and his friendship with foreign experts, referring to his connections to the “Foreign Legion,” – a term specifically applied to leaders and implying they are controlled by powerful and evil outsiders. Covertly, the public gossips that Ali is a closeted homosexual, a status linked in this part of Africa to sinful behavior and witchcraft.

More importantly, Ali Bongo’s coming to power in 2009 imposed a dynastic logic that broke away from traditional political patronage and ethnic equilibrium. Ali set aside the ethnic patronage of his predecessors to rely on a circle of right-hand men, whose loyalty he has tested during his long years of relative anonymity.  By contrast, Jean Ping’s slogan C’est dosé (“A Right Dosage”) nods to the political tradition of ethnic and national balance. The son of a Chinese businessman and a woman from Ombooué (south Gabon), Ping is of an ethnic minority, and thus well placed to restore the balance of power between the regions of Gabon. Active during the 1990s, a decade of economic prosperity in Gabon, Ping embodies a return to a more prosperous economic era. The fact that he belongs to Ali Bongo’s close family (in the 1990s, he was the companion of Pascaline, Ali Bongo’s sister, with whom he has two children) does not seem to discourage his supporters.  On the contrary, it guarantees that he has a deep knowledge of the local state, and that he will be able to govern.

The lukewarm reactions to the constitutional court’s declaration of Bongo’s victory on September 24 suggest that international actors have accepted the outcome of the elections. In Gabon itself, it is not clear whether the elite slighted by Bongo has enough popular backing to confront the heavily armed, well-organized president and ordinary Gabonese face ruthless retaliation. The opposition in Gabon is thus historically weak, poorly organized and ready to collude with those in power. Since 1960, no movement in Gabon has been able to propose a political alternative. Any attempts to shift the status quo meet with strong repression. In 1964, a coup attempt against Léon Mba was put down with the support of the French army. In 1990-1991, when pressures for the liberalization of politics ended single-party rule, the stamina of the opposition proved short-lived: with the help of France, then-president Omar Bongo quickly contained and crushed its leaders, before coopting some into government positions.

Gabonese like to mock that theirs is a country “where nothing ever happens.” However, at the time of writing, foreign observers were reporting that roadblocks obstructed the main roads in Libreville, while fighter jets flew low over the city. In times of soft dictatorship, there can always be surprises.

Further Reading