(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Temperature rising ahead of campaign

[Gabon] Omar Bongo, president of Gabon and now Africa's longest-serving head of state. February 2005.

The official start to Gabon’s presidential election campaign is still close to a month away but tension is already rising as allegations and thinly veiled threats start to fly.

Opposition candidates are demanding an election free of the dirty tricks they say have helped keep President Omar Bongo – Africa’s longest-serving president – in power.

While many voters see the 38-year leader’s victory as a foregone conclusion, the opposition is not about to give in.

Of the 12 challengers who applied, only three have been officially accepted pending an appeal. But among the three are two political heavyweights – former presidential candidate Pierre Mamboundou and former Bongo cabinet minister Zacharie Myboto.

Pastor Ernest Tomo, running as an independent, also won a slot.

In Myboto – the ruling party’s number two man before his defection in 2001 – Bongo faces not only a popular rival but one who knows state secrets, which could give weight to his allegations of government corruption.

Myboto charges that Bongo lost the last presidential election in 1998 despite official results that showed the incumbent defeating Mamboundou by 66 percent to 16 percent.

Mamboundou’s Union for the Gabonese People (UPG), which claims that opinion polls consistently show their leader in front with Bongo in third place, has said it will not accept any “cheating” in the upcoming poll.

“We state categorically that Pierre Mamboundou will not be cheated out of victory again the way he was in 1998,” UPG secretary general Richard Moulomba said in a communique on Monday. “If Omar Bongo and his cronies actually try to pull off the fraud they’re preparing, what will happen, will happen.”

Bongo, for his part, has also been talking tough.

“Whoever dares to threaten Gabon’s peace and stability will have to deal with me first,” he said earlier this month as he announced his candidacy, which would have been impossible but for a 2003 constitutional amendment allowing him to stand for another term.

At the end of last week, the ministries of defence and public security released a statement warning all candidates not to use the campaign as a pretext for dividing the country.

But Myboto is charging hypocrisy.

“The government’s plan is to tarnish our image by portraying us as irresponsible,” he said earlier this week. “They are the ones who want to set this country ablaze and they want us to be held responsible for what they are preparing.”

Beyond this war of words, security concerns have already had a tangible effect on election planning.

Citing the threat of violence, Bongo has declared that elections will be held over two days, 25 November for the military and 27 November for the rest of the population, in order to ensure the protection of voters.

But this measure, which is new to Gabonese politics, has only thrown fuel on the fire.

The opposition is concerned that since soldiers vote in their barracks, they will simply mark their ballots as they are told. The absence of a separate voting list for the military could open the door for double-voting, once on Friday and once on Sunday. And government opponents say ballot boxes sitting for two days could be tempting targets for would-be stuffers.

But the UPG’s Mamboundou says his supporters are ready for a long fight.

“The struggle for democratic transition is an endurance test, especially against a 40 year-old regime,” he said on Wednesday.

The campaign does not officially begin until 13 November.

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