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Unwinnable battles for West African political opposition?
Gabon’s newly inaugurated President Ali Ben Bongo named his first government at the weekend, appointing a mix of old faces and relative unknowns. One of his main challengers for the presidency, Andre Mba Obame, began a hunger strike in protest at what many denounced as a fraudulent election, while other opposition figures faded back to the margins of political life.
The election again poses questions about the nature of opposition in West and Central Africa. Given the depth of genuine anti-Bongo feeling I observed on the streets of Libreville in the days before voting, the election in August represented a chance for a serious challenge to the Democratic Party of Gabon’s (PDG) longstanding hegemony, and a chance that was missed.
The opposition – which, if in some cases divided on ethnic lines, but not in any meaningful way on policy lines – misplayed their hand by fielding more than 20 candidates and in so doing splitting the vote. Of course there’s no guarantee that a unity candidate would have beaten Bongo, or that the PDG apparatus would have allowed it. Still, the fact that the two highest-polling anti-Bongo contenders, Mbame and Pierre Mamboundou, took around 25 percent of the vote each, compared with Bongo’s 47 percent, suggests a straight fight may have run Bongo much closer than the multiplicity of challengers he did face.
In Gabon there was awareness of the dangers of too many candidates. A campaign called for one unity candidate to take on Bongo head-to-head, but was undermined by the inability of strong challengers to subordinate personal ambition for the goal of preventing what many described as the establishment of a Bongo dynasty passing from father to son.
Guinea, meanwhile, is in the grip of a severe political crisis sparked by military junta leader Captain Moussa Dadis Camara’s shockingly lethal crackdown on a protest march last month in which more than 150 people were killed.
Opposition to Camara and his administration is harder than at any point since he took over last December, but no single politician or civil society has emerged as a focal point for public outrage over the slaughter. The crucial question is whether the junta will, as it has been pressed to do, refrain from entering a candidate in elections, but either way an indecisive poll could create exactly the type of power vacuum into which soldiers have shown themselves so willing to step.
The other extreme – non-participation – is no more successful.
While the Mauritanian body politic, in contrast to Gabon and Guinea, can be characterised by indifference rather than engagement, the opposition’s initial boycott of the electoral process allowed then junta leader and now President Abdel Aziz to effectively wrap up the campaign even before anti-junta parties did consent to participate, once Abdel Aziz had agreed to delay the poll.
In Niger, the opposition’s boycott of August’s constitution-changing, and indeed constitution-defying, referendum can be counted a success only in the narrowest terms of a symbolic denial of its legitimacy. With votes in favour coming in at 92 percent, it’s difficult to see what involvement in the process would have achieved, given the government’s evident lack of regard for even the veneer of credibility and international criticism that engendered.
There are several questions raised by events in these four countries. After years if not decades of rule by one man, one party or a succession of military administrations, is it even possible any longer to rally around one single unifying figure, even a Mobutu-style iconoclast?
Has the practice if not indeed the concept of opposition as realistic alternative and serious ideological challenger to a sitting ruler, been diminished to near-extinction?
Have opposition politicians in these countries been so neutered by years of fruitlessly fighting an omnipotent state, often willing to use force to stifle discontent, that the gesture has become largely symbolic, and electorates left ill-served by ruling party and opposition alike?