Gabon’s great gamble

Shaking the system: Ping greeting supporters outside his campaign headquarters in Libreville, Gabon. — Reuters

A presidential election in Central Africa pits the son of a Chinese migrant against the ruling Bongo family.

IN faraway Gabon, the election results are out. The incumbent president Ali Bongo Ondimba appears to have narrowly defeated his challenger Jean Ping.

Ali Bongo, of course, has been head of state since the death of his father Omar who served as president for 42 years from 1967 to 2009.

And Ping of course is the son of Cheng Zhiping from Wenzhou in China’s Zhejiang province.

Surprised? Well, I was too.

It’s oft trumpeted that only in America could we see the likes of a descendant of a Kenyan becoming president but it’s not really true.

Togo once had a president of Polish descent called Nicholas Grunitsky (head of state from 1963 to 1967) while Jerry Rawlings of Ghana was half-Scottish. In fact, when Guy Scott, the fully Caucasian Vice-President of Zambia introduced himself as such to former US President George Bush in 2012, the latter thought he was joking!

Ping’s story, or rather that of his adventurous father, is an interesting one.

In the 1930s, Cheng was a migrant worker who made his way to France and then took the unusual step of coming out to Gabon which was then under French rule.

Initially a labourer, he became a merchant, even owning a bakery at one point. He fell in love with a local woman and married her. Mind you, this was the 1940s, and African-Chinese marriages weren’t exactly a dime a dozen.

His son, Jean Ping, went on to have a distinguished career, studying in the Sorbonne and serving as an important cabinet to Bongo senior. He also enjoyed successful stints in the United Nations, and served for a time as chairperson of the African Union.

He also was in a relationship with Pascaline, one of Omar Bongo’s many children (estimated to be between 30 to 40) and had two children with her. That makes the two presidential rivals brothers-in-law of sorts I suppose.

While Gabon does not enjoy the high profile of other African nations like Egypt, South Africa or Nigeria, it is in fact one of the continent’s success stories.

Fuelled in part by oil wealth, it has one of the highest GDP per capita on the continent and has hitherto been one of the most stable and urban of Africa’s nations. Importantly, Gabon also avoided the twin evils of tribal conflict and military rule.

On the downside, Gabon’s stability has owed much to a lack of democratic space.

The first president Leon M’Ba opted for a one-party state and his successor was Omar Bongo, meaning that the country has only had three presidents in its 56-year history.

Ali Bongo, however, has not enjoyed the sort of dominance that his father did, and has had to fight hard to maintain his hold on power. Ironically at the last elections, Ping was heard criticising defeated candidate Andre Mba Obame for his refusal to accept the results.

This time around, the shoe is on the other foot. Like Obame, Ping left the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party to challenge the status quo. Forming his own party, he managed to unite the opposition behind a single candidacy.

Campaigning in part on closer links to China, Gabon’s second largest trading partner, Ping has provided the greatest threat to the Bongo hegemony.

There is no doubt that the election was a close one. The official election results delivered Bongo a second seven-year term with 49.8% of the vote to Ping’s 48.2% – a margin of just 5,594 votes.

Yet, they indicate that Ping triumphed in six out of nine provinces. Yet, in Bongo’s home province of Haut-Ogooue, the turnout was an unbelievable 99.93% and 95% of votes were for the president. That, of course, made all the difference.

Now violence is erupting in Libreville. At least three people have been killed, police have arrested over a thousand Ping supporters, and he has gone into hiding after his party headquarters was bombed.

It’s a common story in faux democracies – when a real threat of regime change unexpectedly materialises, the wolf will bare its teeth.

Star online news editor Martin Vengadesan hopes that a peaceful outcome is in the offing.

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