Op-Ed: Here’s what could trigger an early presidential election in Gabon

By Francois Conradie, Head of Research at NKC African Economics

As President Ali Bongo remains incommunicado, there are signs that the top figures in his Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) are preparing to reveal the seriousness of his condition, and then trigger the process that will lead to a fresh presidential election.

Mr Bongo has not been seen since he suffered a stroke on October 24 while on a visit to Saudi Arabia. The very first reports from the government’s spokespeople were that the president needed some rest for exhaustion, although rumours of a stroke quickly reached the international media.

On November 11, Ike Ngouoni, the government’s spokesman, spoke of “bleeding” but tried reassuring Gabonese that the president “continues to exercise his functions”. On Tuesday, November 27, his wife confirmed that he would continue his treatment in Morocco; he and King Mohammed VI are childhood friends.

Article 13 of the 1991 constitution provides that, in case there is a “definitive obstacle” to the elected president exercising his functions, as determined by the Constitutional Council, then a fresh election must be held within 45 days from the date that the definitive obstacle has been decided.

This is a short period of time and, given the highly centralised nature of rule in Gabon under both Mr Bongo and his late father Omar, there is no obvious successor to the president.

We think key figures in the PDG, including the Bongo family, want to be certain who the party’s candidate will be in that election before they let the Constitutional Council make the declaration that will trigger the election process. (Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo, who has presided the Council since 1991, had a long romantic relationship with Omar Bongo and is close to Ali Bongo.)

The Council has already made a constitutional pronouncement of some weight, which allows Vice-President Pierre-Claver Maganga Moussavou to chair a cabinet meeting (which happened for the first time on November 16).

On Saturday, November 24, the High Communication Authority (HAC), which regulates broadcasting, announced that the opposition National Union (UN) was banned from access to state-owned media for three months in relation to UN leaders’ failure to explain to the government’s satisfaction what they meant when they said that the government’s communication in relation to the state of Mr Bongo’s health was a “state lie”.

Meanwhile the African Union (AU) is reportedly considering sending an observer mission to Gabon, and the National Organisation of Petroleum Employees (Onep) is growing more combative in a labour dispute that opposes it to Total Gabon.

The state has not communicated anything about Mr Bongo’s health since November 8 – not even something like the meticulously staged video appearances by means of which the Algerian power structure reassures its citizens of the state of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s health.

We think Mr Bongo’s condition is extremely serious and that he plays no role in the government of Gabon. If the PDG has been able to agree on a broadly acceptable replacement, then we think the definitive obstacle will shortly be declared and an extremely fluid and unpredictable pre-election period will commence, in which the PDG will be advantaged by the state media muzzle imposed on the UN.

But until that consensus is reached (and the arguments might last for some time) the current embargo on information will apply, while stability in Gabon slowly trends negative.

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