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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.
After a night of claims by various French news outlets that he had died, then a stream of angry denials by government officials in Gabon, President Omar Bongo was officially declared dead on Monday.
His death did not come completely out of the blue – Bongo has been in hospital in Spain for the last month or so. But the demise of Africa’s longest-serving head of state will, no doubt, leave a gap, not just in the central African nation he ruled but also the region where his presence has been central.