Two top opposition figures to challenge Africa’s longest-standing president

Two heavyweights of Gabon’s opposition have announced they will try to shake President Omar Bongo from nearly four decades of power, after winning concessions on the make-up of the national election commission.

Speaking to supporters in Libreville on Sunday, Zacharie Myboto, a former minister under Bongo, and Pierre Mamboundou, a presidential contender in the previous election in 1998, promised a clean break from 38 years of rule under Bongo – Africa’s longest-standing head of state.

Their announcements ended an opposition boycott of the national election commission (NEC), which protesting politicians had accused of being stacked with ruling party supporters.

Up to Friday the opposition had no seats on the 120-strong NEC. But after negotiations with Bongo the opposition was granted 40 slots.

“Since the Gabon you want is one that means progress for all, I have decided to run in the next presidential election,” 67-year-old Myboto said to a crowd of nearly 10,000 supporters, many waving banners that read, “Zacharie Myboto for change.”

Having spent 23 years in Bongo’s government before leaving the ruling party in 2001 and forming the Gabonese Union for Democracy and Development party this year, Myboto asked forgiveness for the errors of the past and promised to do away with corruption and cronyism.

Across town, Mamboundou, who was defeated in the 1998 presidential elections, called for sweeping political, economic and social changes in Gabon.

“After 40 years of authoritarian rule and its disastrous consequences, it’s high time for Gabon to have a brighter tomorrow,” said the 58-year-old president of the Union of Gabonese People (UPG) party.

A third opposition candidate, a 46 year-old business leader named Michel Rouka Rabenkogo, another defector from the ruling party, will run as an independent.

Meanwhile, Bongo’s supporters aren’t shying from the spotlight. The leaders of two parties, both members of the ruling coalition, endorsed the president for re-election.

Bongo has ruled oil-rich Gabon since 1967 and would have been required to step down this year but for a 2003 change to the constitution which allowed him to run again.

The election will take place on two days, with security forces voting on 25 November and the public on 27 November. The opposition has expressed concern that the unusual separate elections scheme will facilitate fraud.

But Bongo defended the move, saying it would free up security forces so they could maintain order on polling day.

Candidates have until 12 October to register and the campaign will run from 13 October to 26 November.