Gabon opposition chief slams election court ruling

Gabon opposition leader Jean Ping (C), flanked by former minister René Ndemezo'o Obiang (L) and former Prime Minister Jean Eyegué Ndong (R), speaks to journalists in Libreville on September 8, 2016. -AFP File photo

Gabon opposition leader Jean Ping (C), flanked by former minister René Ndemezo’o Obiang (L) and former Prime Minister Jean Eyegué Ndong (R), speaks to journalists in Libreville on September 8, 2016. -AFP File photo

LIBREVILLE: Gabon’s opposition leader Jean Ping on Saturday slammed the validation of President Ali Bongo’s re-election by the country’s Constitutional Court as a “miscarriage of justice”.

Ping accused the court of “bias” during a press conference following its ruling in the early hours of Saturday upholding Bongo’s victory in the disputed August 27 presidential election.

“I will not retreat. As president clearly elected by the Gabonese people, I remain at your side to defend your vote and your sovereignty,” Ping said.

Concern has been growing that a ruling in favour of Bongo, in power since the death of his long-ruling father Omar Bongo in 2009, could spark more of the deadly unrest Gabon saw after the president’s re-election was announced.

Ping, a career diplomat and a former top official at the African Union, had filed a legal challenge earlier this month demanding a recount.

The Constitutional Court, while partially changing the results of the close August 27 vote, said Bongo increased his lead over Ping to a still-slim 11,000 votes.

Libreville’s nearly empty streets were under the watch of a heavy police and military presence on Saturday after the court ruling.

Checkpoints dotted routes into the capital’s centre, helicopters hovered overhead and elite troops protected the presidential palace, but no violence had been reported.

In his first comments after the ruling, Bongo appealed for “political dialogue” with the opposition to steer Gabon out of the crisis triggered by the announcement of his victory.

“I intend to very quickly bring together the conditions for a political dialogue open to all those who wish (to take part),” Bongo said in a televised speech.

He called on his ally-turned-rival Ping to work with him, “guided by the will to place the greater good of the nation above our individual and partisan interests.”

– International concern –

Western powers have expressed concern over the election’s conduct and the opposition’s treatment in its aftermath.

The US embassy in Gabon called for the Constitutional Court to release details of its deliberations “to allow for transparency”.

“We are troubled by what appear to be arbitrary arrests of opposition supporters, many of whom fear for their safety as well as that of their family members. We are also troubled by the continued internet shutdown,” it said in a statement.

The EU said its election observers had only limited access to witness the poll, in breach of the agreement the bloc signed with Gabon’s government.

“The confidence of the Gabonese people in the integrity of the electoral process may, legitimately, have been put in doubt,” it said in a statement.

“The deep divisions demand a political response that will guarantee the country’s stability and unity.”

Ping had warned the country could face serious instability if the court rejected his appeal for a recount.

But the government has warned Ping he will be held responsible if fresh violence breaks out, and could find himself arrested if he crosses “the red line”.

Chad’s president Idriss Deby, who also heads the African Union, said that the organisation had “taken note” of the Constitutional Court’s verdict.

Deby was reelected for a controversial fifth term in April following an election disputed by the opposition.

– ‘Clear anomaly’ –

Ping and his supporters hoped to end the Bongo family’s 50-year grip on power in the oil-rich country of 1.8 million people.

Ping has made clear he believed Bongo had the court in his pocket, referring to it as “the Tower of Pisa that always leans the same way”.

The nation erupted in protest after Bongo was declared the winner following an election mired in allegations of fraud.

During the ensuing chaos, demonstrators set fire to the parliament and clashed violently with police, who arrested around a thousand people.

Opposition figures say more than 50 people were killed in the violence, but the government gave a figure of three dead.

In his legal challenge, Ping asked for a recount in Haut-Ogooue province, a stronghold of the Bongo family where the president won more than 95 percent of the votes and turnout was declared to be more than 99 percent.

EU observers have said there was a “clear anomaly” in the province’s results. -AFP