Gabon: Lessons for a Future Regime Change?

By Alassane Dembele

On September 28, 2016 the Constitutional Court of Gabon decided to uphold the results of the August 27th presidential election, allowing President Ali Bongo to retain his power without much contest. Now that the African Union and international community have officially acknowledged the decision of the Gabonese highest court, civil society, the main opposition parties (Rally for Gabon and Union of Gabonese) as well as independent candidates must rethink their plan of action if they hope to end the Bongos’dynasty. Those wishing for political change in Gabon must follow the lead of their African counterparts who have challenged their own status quo. Over the last few years, successful transitions such as those in Senegal, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso illustrate how those against President Bongo should organize.

To begin with, the lack of unity within the opposition perpetuates President Bongo’s consolidation of power in Gabon. It’s reported that 14 candidates ran in the winner-take-all election. While it is important for voters to be exposed to varying political ideas, these divisions made it easier for Ali Bongo to benefit from the state’s apparatus. The opposition would need to consolidate around a single candidate who can challenge President Bongo if he ran for reelection in 2023. In the context of Senegal, the local opposition displayed appropriate solidarity around Macky Sall, the challenger, that forced President Abdoulaye Wade out of office in 2012. According to the Commission Nationale de Recensement des Votes, the National Electoral Commission, Sall earned more than 65 percent of the votes. This story of success should inspire future Gabonese candidates to put aside their differences and personal aspirations in order to bring about change.

Another major cause of political longevity in Africa is electoral fraud. However, this is being mitigated today by the use of technology. Take for instance Nigeria, which witnessed a smooth transfer of power after the 2015 presidential election won by Muhammad Buhari. As stated in The Economist , the use of biometric technology to register all the eligible voters was crucial in assuring a peaceful transition of power in Nigeria. Meanwhile, Gabon’s election was tainted by irregularities, such as burned ballot votes. It is civil society’s duty to demand the implementation of technology by the government and the national electoral commission. However, significant foreign assistance would be necessary given the lack of resources available to the local civil society that has yet to influence national politics. Although a fair election cannot be guaranteed, the use of biometrics would put the Gabonese government under scrutiny in hope of promoting and creating more transparency. Therefore, the introduction of biometrics for the next presidential election of Gabon will be imperative to ensure a fair election process.

One last aspect essential to political renewal is popular mobilization. The 2014 uprising in Burkina Faso, which ended President Blaise Compaore’s 27-year-old rule, demonstrates the effectiveness of mass protests. Landry Signe reports in The Washington Post , that the mobilization against a proposed reform of the Constitution was the key to ousting Compaore. In Gabon, this type of event does not seem possible given the lack of large-scale mobilization displayed by the Gabonese people against the results of the political election. According to Sean Lyngass also in The Washington Post , only a few thousands protestors were in the streets of Libreville compared to the tens of thousands in Burkina Faso. The Gabonese opposition will need to find a way to efficiently galvanize the people in its push for political change. Yet, calls for political mobilization must be matched with considerations to help ensure protests do not lead to violence that could undermine the opposition’s political agenda.

President Bongo’s next seven years in office will certainly be long and frustrating for an opposition that feels hopeless; however, it is also an opportunity to prepare for the future. These preparations should include: promoting solidarity and avoiding further divisions among the opposition; promoting the use of biometrics to ensure free and fair elections; and to consider the call for non-violent protests in order to put pressure on the establishment. The opposition cannot afford any missteps that would risk their ability to gain future power in the political arena.


Written by Alassane Dembele

MS Candidate in Global Affairs @ New York University