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The oil-rich West African nation must find new leader after 42 years under Omar Bongo.
Gabon’s stability has come at a cost. According to the U.S. State Department, arbitrary arrest, police brutality, overcrowded prisons and a dysfunctional judicial system are persistent problems. Freedom of speech and of the press are largely fictions, and corruption is endemic from the top down. And like much of sub-Saharan Africa, there are ethnic tensions. President Bongo inordinately favored his own ethnic group, the Bateke tribe, which has been a long-standing source of friction with the scores of other ethnic groups, in particular the major ones like the Miene, Bapunu and Fang, who make up the largest percentage of the population.
The apprehension of the Gabonese takes two contradictory forms. First, there is concern that the power vacuum left by the old man will be filled by opportunists from his entourage, possibly led by Ali-Ben, his sister Patience (her father’s chief of staff) or her husband the minister of foreign affairs, meaning the maintenance of the inefficient, corrupt status quo.
The other worry is, ironically, that the ancien regime will fall, but violently through a coup d’état or civil unrest. Rumors of a military takeover have been circulating for weeks.
Theoretically, there is another, better way. According to Gabon's constitution, the president of the Senate will serve as interim national leader, until elections are organized within 30 to 45 days. In theory, the elections will allow the Gabonese to choose a new leader in democratic fashion. In reality, though, Gabon has no real tradition of free elections, the political opposition is moribund, and there is insufficient time for parties to properly mobilize and campaign.
The reaction of the international community during this transitional phase will be critical, and Gabonese are closely watching their country’s traditional patron, France. President Sarkozy’s elegiac description of Bongo as a “great and loyal friend” will have raised eyebrows among those who believe that Gabon’s relations with former colonial master have been a bit too claustrophobic.
Ideally, Bongo’s successor will recognize that Gabon is long overdue for a serious national dialogue about governance, ethnicity and wealth distribution. Bringing inclusivity and transparency to a government that has lacked both would be a start. Certainly the troubled neighborhood of central Africa does not need another failed state.
Chris Hennemeyer, vice president of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (Ifes) has lived and worked in Africa for over 20 years, and is currently based in Washington, D.C.
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