fragmented front

Gabon: Opposition scrabbles to unite against Ali Bongo Ondimba

By Jeanne Le Bihan

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Posted on July 24, 2023 10:29

Gabon opposition Gabon opposition figures (left to right): Raymond Ndong Sima, Alexandré Barro Chambrier, Paulette Missambo, Albert Ondo Ossa. (©Jeune Afrique montage/Désirey Minko/Yvan G/Pictures for JA/All rights reserved/Bruno Lévy for JA)
Gabon opposition figures (left to right): Raymond Ndong Sima, Alexandré Barro Chambrier, Paulette Missambo, Albert Ondo Ossa. (©Jeune Afrique montage/Désirey Minko/Yvan G/Pictures for JA/All rights reserved/Bruno Lévy for JA)

Paul-Marie Gondjout’s withdrawal and Jonathan Ignoumba’s defection strengthen President Ondimba’s chances of winning a third term.

With just a few weeks to go before general elections scheduled for 26 August in Gabon, last-minute defections are destabilising the opposition, which is struggling to unite against the incumbent, President Ali Bongo Ondimba.

“I have decided not to be a candidate in the presidential election,” opposition figure Paul-Marie Gondjout said when asked about his participation in the race for the country’s top office.

His political group, the Union Nationale Initiale (UNI), founded last year, will not be lining up behind a candidate – at least not for the time being.

Gondjout said that the incumbent head of state is “engaged in a frantic race to hold onto power, while the reality of his record borders on failure”, while the opposition is struggling “to show that it is a real alternative to the government”.

Very little differentiates the Union Nationale from the UNI, and the Démocrates (LD) from the Démocrates Libres (LDL). Gondjout and Séraphin Akure-Davain left their respective parties to set up these dissident groups, adding an extra adjective to their party’s titles and diluting the opposition offering.

Rumours in the corridors

But if these departures, in a context of complicated power-sharing between Union Nationale leader Paulette Missambo and LD chief Guy Nzouba Ndama, seemed to suggest presidential ambitions for both opponents, this is not the case for the upcoming elections.

Like Louis-Gaston Mayila, the leader of another opposition group, PG41, Gondjout has chosen not to seize the opportunity to run for the presidency.

Gondjout – married to Chantal Myboto, the daughter of Union Nationale founder Zacharie Myboto – is calling for “national cohesion” and appeasement.

In early May, Mayila and Gondjout went to the Palais du Bord de Mer [the president’s official residence in Libreville], where they held discussions with President Bongo, who is standing for a third term.

This meeting provoked heavy criticism among other members of the opposition, with some accusing the two men of allying themselves with the government.

In a country where rumours of back-and-forth membership between the opposition and the ruling Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG) are rife, their “last-minute withdrawal” is, unsurprisingly, a hot topic in Libreville.

Back to the PDG

In recent years, a number of prominent figures have left what was once the only party, only to return to it. It is not uncommon to see an opposition leader who was previously firmly “anti-Bongo” join the government.

The latest example is Jonathan Ignoumba. In June, the former head of the Démocrates announced that he was returning to the PDG. On 12 July, he was appointed commissioner to the presidency.

Not long before him, opposition politician and former minister delegate for finance Charles M’Ba joined the high commission.

Michel Menga M’Essonne’s return to power since the Angondjè national dialogue, two years after his ousting from the PDG, also caused a stir.

The former associate of Alexandre Barro Chambrier, co-founder of the Rassemblement Héritage et Modernité – ancestor of the Rassemblement pour la Patrie et la Modernité (RPM) of the presidential candidate – rejoined the government in May 2018 as housing minister.

M’Essonne has since changed portfolios but is still part of the Gabonese executive as the minister of decentralisation.

The tentacular presidency has been “marketing” to bring back politicians, as the Gabonese press puts it. Even when opponents do not return to the fold, they are often accused of accepting backhanders from the government.

Behind schedule

Despite attempts to unite the opposition, such as the Alternance 2023 platform, dissension within the main opposition groups is set to benefit the ruling party in the presidential election.

Another source of “destabilisation” for some opponents is the deadline for publication of the electoral calendar. The Centre Gabonais des Elections (CGE) announced the dates of the various polls on 25 June, just two months before the elections.

Back in 2016, the calendar’s late publication was criticised. At that time, the Commission Electorale Nationale Autonome Permanente, the forerunner to the CGE, presented the electoral timetable in early June, with the presidential election scheduled for 27 August.

“The presidency is trying to disqualify the opposition,” a senior Union Nationale figure said, denouncing the late organisation of the elections and the constitutional amendment ratifying the return to single-round voting in April, which is seen by many as a “step backwards for democracy”.

While the Angondjè national dialogue had endorsed two-round elections in 2018, the government quashed the reform just a few months before the presidential election.

“The forthcoming election is very dangerous insofar as the government wants to organise it in a hurry,” an opposition politician told The Africa Report. “The government’s gamble is to take everyone by surprise, but it will end up destabilising itself rather than the opposition.”

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