Gabon’s Recount: Three Data Points

On August 27, Gabon held presidential elections. Official results gave incumbent President Ali Bongo Ondimba a narrow victory, but leading opposition contender and former AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping has demanded a recount. The announcement of Bongo’s victory also elicited serious protests, which were quickly repressed. I wrote an election preview here, and a post-election analysis here.

Why a recount? Ping, and many analysts and observers, have questioned tallies coming from Bongo’s home province, Haut-Ogooué. There, both the turnout figures (99.93%) and the margin of Bongo’s victory (95.46% Bongo, 4.31% Ping) were astronomical in comparison to other provinces. Ping has submitted a petition to the Constitutional Court asking for a recount. The Court will rule on his petition some time on or after September 23. During the interval the Court is reviewing the results.

Here are three data points to consider:

  1. Gabon’s Ambassador to the United States has written that “a recount of the vote will be completed by the Constitutional Court and the winner confirmed.” He added, though, that “the election was free, fair, and transparent.”
  2. Jeune Afrique (French) reports that Bongo’s side has submitted a formal response to Ping’s petition. Bongo’s lawyers implied to the Constitutional Court that Ping had won suspiciously high vote totals in several districts of the capital Libreville (Estuaire province) and in at least one district of Woleu-Ntem province. Both sides say that there are many defective polling station reports.
  3. RFI (French) reports that the African Union was denied permission to send observers to the Constitutional Court’s recount/review of tallies from Haut-Ogooué.

To me, all this suggests four main possibilities. First, the Court might invalidate Bongo’s election and declare Ping the winner. Second, the Court might simply uphold the results. Third, the Court might invalidate some of the votes for Bongo in Haut-Ogooué but also invalidate some of the votes for Ping in Libreville and Woleu-Ntem – leaving Bongo’s overall victory intact. Fourth (and here I am not familiar enough with Gabonese law to say), the Court might order a re-run of the election. But I believe the second and third possibilities are more likely than the first or the fourth.

Uganda and North Africa

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has, it seems, been paying attention to the “Arab spring” since it began. During the Ugandan presidential elections in February, in which Museveni won a fourth official term, government authorities banned the use of certain words in text messaging. These included “Egypt”, “bullet,” “people power,” “Tunisia”, “Mubarak”, “dictator”, “teargas”, “army”, “police”, “gun”, “Ben Ali” and “UPDF,” the last term being the acronym of the Ugandan armed forces.

Not too long afterward, NATION intervened in Libya, and Museveni was upset. In late March, he wrote a widely circulated article for Foreign Policy in which he cited double standards in the West’s treatment of Libya (versus, for example, Bahrain), lamented what he saw as the bypassing of the African Union in the decisionmaking process, and expressed concern about the potentially long-lasting, negative consequences of the intervention. Whether one agrees with Museveni or not (and I do on some issues), the point is that Museveni seems to fear how the “Arab spring” might reshape African politics.

During the spring, Uganda saw the “Walk to Work” movement, in which opposition leader Kizza Besigye mobilized hundreds to protest high food and fuel prices. These protests were primarily related to domestic troubles, rather than foreign influences, but the harshness of the government crackdown hinted that “the nearby Arab Spring revolutions can’t be far from Museveni’s mind.”

This week, Ugandan activists made explicit reference to the North African revolutions:

Pressure group Activists 4 Change wants to hold a rally in the capital Kampala on Friday to “celebrate people power in North Africa” following the overthrow of the leaders of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

The group has emailed invitations accompanied by a flyer featuring photos of the toppled rulers crossed out — with Uganda’s long-serving President Yoweri Museveni lined up as the next to go.

Police banned the rally. If activists push forward, as they have in the past, there could be bloodshed again.

Talk of an “African spring” has largely crested and fallen. President Blaise Compaore retained power in Burkina Faso, the sub-Saharan African country which experienced perhaps the most serious protests this year. Gabon’s President Ali Bongo withstood major protests there. Museveni is unlikely to fall any time soon. And leaders who look vulnerable, like Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade, are not under threat so much because of contagion from North Africa, but because pent-up local grievances are coming to the fore amid (pre-)electoral campaigning.

Still, the “Arab spring” has changed the way activists in countries like Uganda frame their demands and view heads of state. And it has changed how heads of state view their own position. Going forward, both sides will likely continue to mull over the lessons of the North African revolutions, with each side trying to stay once step ahead of the other on the organizational, technological, and political levels.

Goodluck Jonathan and Ali Bongo to Washington, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama to Africa

Next week major leaders from African countries will travel to Washington as major leaders from the United States prepare to travel to Africa. In both directions, the visits are sure to occasion commentary.

In Washington, President Barack Obama will receive Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on Wednesday and Gabonese President Ali Bongo on Thursday. Obama and Jonathan met around this time last year, after Jonathan was sworn in for the first time. I may be mistaken, but I believe Jonathan’s first visit following each of his inaugurations has been to the United States.

Commentary on the visit in Nigeria and in the Africa-focused press may be more curious than critical. The meeting with Ali Bongo may evoke more criticism. Despite a relative lack of international media attention, Gabon was the site of one of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest protest movements earlier this year, and Bongo’s security forces carried out a serious crackdown on the protesters. I doubt that many in the US will be paying attention to these visits, but we may see some criticism of Bongo’s visit this week on Twitter and blogs.

While Jonathan and Bongo are in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be getting ready for her upcoming trip to Zambia, Tanzania and Ethiopia. Here’s a peek at the itinerary:

Clinton, following a trip to the United Arab Emirates, will visit Zambia’s capital Lusaka on June 10 for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) Ministerial Forum, Clinton’s deputy spokesman Mark Toner said.

[…]In Zambia, Clinton will also meet Zambian President Rupiah Banda, who is seeking re-election this year, and “participate in events to highlight US government initiatives to improve the lives of the Zambian people,” Toner said.

Afterward, he said, Clinton will travel to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but gave no precise dates.

The chief US diplomat will meet with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

“In Tanzania, she will highlight our successful bilateral engagement, including a host of programs, including Feed the Future,” Toner said.

In Ethiopia, Clinton will “focus on regional issues,” visiting the African Union headquarters and meeting with AU Chairman Jean Ping in addition to holding bilateral meetings with Ethiopian officials.

Later this month, First Lady Michelle Obama will also travel (without the President, but with her mother and daughters) to South Africa and Botswana. This will be an official visit focused on health issues. Read the White House statement here.

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Michelle Obama currently holds elected office, but both are political figures, and they are two of the most popular (at times, I believe, the two most popular, as measured by approval ratings) national political figures in the US. I imagine that popularity will hold in Africa to an extent as well, and that both will get enthusiastic receptions on their trips – though Clinton’s meetings with African leaders will not necessarily be entirely smooth. I will cover Clinton’s trip here, as I did when she visited the continent in 2009; Obama’s is well outside of my usual geographic coverage, so I may only offer a few links as relevant.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wraps Up Africa Tour

China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visited Chad yesterday, the last stop on a trip that included Zimbabwe, Guinea, Gabon, and Togo. Yang has made three prior journeys to Africa, and this trip reflects China’s continued engagement across the continent. Once again, economic themes dominated the agenda, and Yang ‘s policy statements affirmed China’s willingness to work with African leaders that the West finds controversial and its willingness to do business amidst political turmoil.

In Zimbabwe, Yang met with President Robert Mugabe. Yang “signed an agreement to give Zimbabwe’s government a 50 million- yuan ($7.6 million) grant and called for sanctions against the southern African country to be lifted.”

In Guinea, Yang spoke with President Alpha Conde and announced “two cooperation agreements worth 170 million yuan ($26 million).”

In Gabon, Yang sat down with President Ali Bongo Ondimbaand they pledged closer cooperation in trade, economy and infrastructure.”

In Togo, “Yang and his Togolese counterpart, Elliott Ohin, signed a deal for a six million euro grant in Kara, the ruling party’s home base and native region of longtime leader General Gnassingbe Eyadema, whose son is now president state media said.”

And finally, in Chad economic cooperation also took center stage.

On each stop, then, Yang announced new agreements and urged further cooperation. Many of these countries have already seen huge increases in their trade with China in recent years.

The differences between Chinese and American styles in Africa remain striking. A high-ranking American diplomat who visited countries like Zimbabwe and Gabon, where political turmoil has profoundly shaken the legitimacy of rulers, would have almost certainly concentrated on political themes, urging reform and greater democratization. China’s strategy continues to center on identifying shared interests (unequally shared, some would argue) and building ever-closer relationships with leaders, no matter how controversial those leaders are, based on those ties.

Sub-Saharan Africa Protests

Only ten days ago, knowledgeable commentators were still discussing why North Africa’s protests had not spread into Sub-Saharan Africa. But in the last week and a half, protests movements have gained steam south of the Sahara. With the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak occasioning comment across the continent, more protests may occur.

One way demonstrations have spread – or threatened to spread – is through geographical proximity. It remains to be seen whether North Africa’s anti-regime movements will find echoes to the immediate south, but it will already be difficult for people in the Sahel to ignore the turmoil on the other side of the Sahara. Nearly all of North Africa has now experienced protests. Demonstrations broke out in Libya yesterday. Morocco has not felt the impact from Tunisia and Egypt as strongly as other North African countries, but the protests that hit Algeria this weekend made Morocco nervous about the prospect of popular agitation in Western Sahara. Unrest in Western Sahara would bring the protest wave to Mauritania’s borders. Mauritania, in fact, already experienced at least one incident of self-immolation modeled on the tragedy in Tunisia. It seems unlikely that the protests in Libya and Algeria will inspire unrest in the countries immediately south of North Africa, such as Niger and Chad, but both of those countries are in the midst of election season, and as we have seen anything is possible.

In East Africa, Sudan has generated an uneven but significant protest movement. Calls for uprisings are now coming from African writers and opposition politicians in the neighborhood of Sudan and Egypt. An Ethiopian blogger writes, “Let us hope the fight for common decency extends throughout the Nile and into Ethiopia.” As Uganda heads into presidential elections this Friday, “Opposition members…are threatening Egypt-style protests if next Friday’s presidential election is rigged so that Yoweri Museveni can extend his 25-year grip on power.”

Geographical proximity is not the only factor in the spread of protests: sometimes the example of North Africa has inspired activists much further south. One of the strongest protests movements has emerged in Gabon. Global Voices, which is offering special coverage of the situation, summarizes the main issues there:

The West African nation of Gabon is experiencing a popular revolt against the rule of President Ali Bongo Ondimba, son of long-time strongman Omar Bongo who died only months before his son was elected in October 2009. Citing allegations of election fraud, opposition leaders formed a breakaway government on January 26 with former presidential candidate André Mba Obame as the self-declared president.

Thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets in the nation’s capital, Libreville, on January 29, and were faced with violent suppression from the army. Protests have spread to other cities, and crackdowns have become increasingly fierce as the current wave of popular protests demanding free elections sweeping the African continent (Tunisia, Egypt and Côte d’Ivoire) has made the Gabonese government especially wary. The “unofficial” government went into hiding in the offices of the UNDP where they have remained for more than two weeks.

It is interesting to watch what meanings the North African protests take on in different political climates in Sub-Saharan Africa. Some activists in Uganda, and also in Nigeria, view the lessons of Egypt and Tunisia through the prism of elections in their own countries. “I have no doubt in my mind that the April polls will be massively rigged as usual,” Nigerian columnist Ikechukwu Amaechi writes, “and when that happens, let us remember that the stirrings of democracy can only be popped up by the people.” Other commentators, such as the Ethiopian blogger mentioned above, wonder what level of brutality their governments would inflict on protesters if matters reached a point of desperation. Finally, some wonder (myself included) whether international media outlets would devote as much coverage to “African” protests (as though North Africa is not in Africa too) as they have to “Arab” protests.

Each country is different, but there are broader trends at work too. A significant swath of politically-minded Africans see the faces of Ben Ali and Mubarak when they look at their own leaders, and vice versa. The protests in North Africa probably will not sweep Sub-Saharan Africa, but they have already ignited a conversation about what is politically possible – apparently, more than most would have said is possible even two months ago.

Africa News Roundup: Nigeria and CAR Elections, Ranneberger and Gration, Somaliland Fighting, and More

Nigeria: President Goodluck Jonathan wins the support of a major opposition party in advance of April’s elections.

Central African Republic: President Francois Bozize’s re-election is now completely official:

The constitutional court in the Central African Republic on Saturday declared President Francois Bozize the winner of elections last month which the opposition has denounced as fraudulent.

In a public session broadcast on television the court threw out complaints by opposition candidates, pronouncing the election properly conducted and Bozize the victor with 64.37 percent of the vote.

Kenya: Controversial US Ambassador Michael Ranneberger is stepping down, and President Barack Obama has nominated US Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration to fill the post. I am planning to write more on this story during the coming week.

South Sudan: Battles between rebels and South Sudan’s army killed over 100 people this week.

Somaliland: In eastern Somaliland, clashes between the army and a clan militia have killed dozens – and caused some army desertions. This is a story to watch, as Somaliland’s image of stability is a major component of its bid for international recognition. Should that stability crumble, hopes of recognition will wane.

Gabon: The Arab protests spread to sub-Saharan Africa.

The protests that are reshaping the Arab world weren’t supposed to spread south to sub-Saharan Africa. But for weeks, while scenes of Egyptians overtaking their capital have mesmerized global TV audiences — and brought the world’s most recognized names in TV news to Cairo — Gabonese protesters have been facing death and imprisonment in a series of anti-repression demonstrations consciously modeled off the Tunisian example.

Will historians talk about “global 2011”? Too soon to say, I guess.

What’s on your screen today?