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Gabon’s incumbent President Ali Bongo on Wednesday was declared the winner of a high stakes presidential poll, triggering violent demonstrations in the capital as opposition supporters clashed with security forces.
Bongo secured a razor-thin victory against his main challenger Jean Ping, securing 49.8 percent of the vote while Ping got 48.2 percent, according to the final results announced by Gabonese Interior Minister Pacome Moubelet-Boubeya.
The final results of the hotly contested poll, coming as it did after a delay, heightened tensions across the tiny West African nation, with the opposition promptly rejecting the final vote count.
Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of the capital, Libreville, on Wednesday afternoon, blocking the city’s main streets and throwing garbage cans and burning tyres at security forces, who used tear gas and stun grenades to try to push back the crowds.
“Ping heho, Ali must go!” the shouted the demonstrators, most of them young men from the mapanes, or slums, of the capital city.
By evening, protesters had set fire to the National Assembly building. Photographs showed dark smoke rising from the building with fires burning from different sections of the premises.
Security forces later attempted to storm the opposition headquarters, according to party leaders.
“They attacked around 1:00 am (0000 GMT). It is the republican guard. They were bombarding with helicopters and then they attacked on the ground. There are 19 people injured, some of them very seriously,” said Ping, who was not at the party headquarters himself.
A government spokesman said security forces had stormed the headquarters to catch the “criminals” responsible for setting fire to the parliament building.
“Armed people who set fire to the parliament had gathered at Jean Ping’s headquarters along with hundreds of looters and thugs… they were not political protesters but criminals,” said Alain-Claude Bilie-By-Nze
Pro-Ping commissioners abstain from approval vote
Wednesday’s final result announcement by the interior minister came hours after the country’s election commission (Cenap) met to review the results of the presidential poll with several commission members confirming to FRANCE 24 that they had approved the final vote tally.
Cenap members voted by secret ballot to approve a vote count from the Saturday poll that was disputed by delegates from the Ping camp.
“The opposition abstained,” a delegate from Ping’s camp told the AFP ahead of the official announcement.
Bongo, 57, was running for a second term as head of the oil-rich state previously ruled for 41 years by his father, Omar.
Ping, a 73-year-old career diplomat well-known on the international scene, worked with Bongo senior for many years.
France, US urge restraint
Amid widespread fears of post-electoral violence, France – the former colonial power in Gabon – called for the publication of results from all the country’s polling stations.
“The conditions of the announcement of results of the presidential election in Gabon are a concern,” said French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault in a statement. “France reiterates its concern for transparency. We consider it necessary that the results of all the polling stations are published.”
The US also urged restraint, with State Department spokesman John Kirby noting that, “The United States is deeply concerned regarding unfolding events in Gabon. We take note of the results released by the electoral commission and urge all sides to temper their rhetoric and encourage their supporters to remain calm.”
Tensions have been rising in the West African nation amid fears of a repeat of the violence that followed Gabon’s disputed 2009 election.
Soldiers and police were deployed in the capital of Libreville Monday after Ping declared himself the winner in a Twitter post and called on Bongo to “abide by the verdict of the polls and to recognise his defeat”.
Bongo’s 2009 election followed the death of his father, whose 41 years in the presidency was marred by major corruption allegations and a clampdown on any opposition via an effective mix of violence and patronage.
When he took over the presidency from his late father, Bongo attempted to change the system of kleptocracy and moved to diversify the economy. But Gabon’s economic troubles, caused by falling oil output and prices, have fuelled opposition charges that its 1.8 million people have struggled under Bongo’s leadership.
All eyes on a Bongo stronghold
Any appeal by Ping would likely focus on disputed results in one of the country’s nine provinces — the Haut-Ogooue, the heartland of Bongo’s Teke ethnic group.
Bongo won 95.46 percent of the vote in his stronghold, according to the official results. While the national voter turnout was 59.46 percent, the turnout in Haut-Ogooue was 99.93 percent. Opposition supporters have called the figures “scandalous,” according to local reports.
Gabon’s first-past-the-post system means the winner only needs more votes than any other candidate. Bongo, 57, also benefits from being the incumbent in a country with a patronage system lubricated by oil largesse.
The European Union’s observer mission on Monday criticised a “lack of transparency” among the institutions running the polls and said Bongo had benefited from preferential access to money and the media. Government spokesman Alain-Claude Nze accused the EU of overstepping its mandate.