Police clash with protesters in wake of Bongo re-election

Residents of the Gabonese capital, Libreville, awoke to a city teeming with security forces on Friday, one day after police clashed with crowds protesting the election that put Africa’s longest-serving leader in power for another seven years.

Hundreds of people took to the streets on Thursday after a press conference by the two main opposition leaders, who trailed far behind 38-year leader Omar Bongo in the election.

“The poll was marked by numerous irregularities,” opposition leaders said in a communique. “Ballot-stuffing, multiple votes including in the name of deceased people, influence peddling, vote buying, and outsiders posing as Gabonese to cast a ballot.”

Riot police and other security were already out in force Thursday morning to block the opposition press conference but the media event finally took place nearly three hours late, with more militants than journalists in attendance.

When the conference ended, the bulk of the security forces left but then returned when youths – many of whom had attended the briefing – started to march, despite a call for calm by opposition leaders.

Police struck out with batons to control the crowd, which dispersed after two to three hours. Authorities arrested 23 people.

Bongo, who came to power in 1968, was allowed to run again this year thanks to a 1993 constitutional amendment lifting term limits. Bongo won 79.21 percent of the vote – far ahead of the closest contender, Pierre Mamboundou, who received 13.57 percent, according to the National Electoral Commission.

Despite a general calm since polling day on Sunday – with pro-Bongo festivities conspicuously missing unlike after past elections – many storeowners have kept their shops locked up in case of trouble.

Mamboundou, and the third place candidate, Zacharie Myboto – who defected from Bongo’s party earlier this year – urged calm telling supporters, “We invite the Gabonese people to rise up and march peacefully…not to take to the streets immediately but rather to take concrete and responsible action.”

The commission said turnout was 63.29 percent, or 351,000 of Gabon’s 555,000 voters, in Bongo’s third re-election since the adoption of multi-party politics in 1990. But a western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity estimated the turnout was just 30 to 35 percent of the electorate.

In the run-up to the poll, analysts said a widespread sense that Bongo would easily hold on to power fed voter apathy in the oil-producing nation of about 1.5 million people. And opposition leaders in recent months warned of mass fraud, which they said has tainted past Bongo election wins.

A law professor said the results of the latest poll do not give an accurate picture of Gabonese politics.

“The results distort the political reality in the country. They don’t reveal the true strength of other candidates in the political scene,” Hubert Mba of the University of Libreville told IRIN. “The results were shamelessly rigged.”

The government on Friday invited the opposition to accept “as true democrats, the verdict of the ballot box and renounce anything that might upset public order and instead turn their eyes to future.”

Analysts say it will be difficult for the opposition to challenge Bongo’s victory, partly because election observer groups have declared the elections free and transparent.

“Even if there is some justice to allegations of fraud or electoral manipulation, Bongo's re-election is a fait accompli," says Chris Melville, Africa expert with the London-based research group Global Insight.