'Business as usual,' Gabon leader says, as uneasy calm returns

September 25, 2016 9:39 AM EDT

A fire damaged supermarket in the Gabon capital of Libreville September 24, 2016 that was burned during riots following the disputed reelection of President Ali Bongo. REUTERS/Edward McAllister


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By Edward McAllister

LIBREVILLE (Reuters) - Gabon will return to normal after a bitterly disputed election, its newly re-elected President Ali Bongo said, as soldiers patrolled and military aircraft flew over a capital that has been bracing for another explosion of violence.

The Constitutional Court late on Friday threw out a challenge against the election results by rival Jean Ping, enabling Bongo to extend his family's dynastic 50-year rule over the small, oil-producing central African country.

Ping swiftly rejected the ruling as biased, and many Gabonese feared a return to the violence that killed at least six people - Ping's supporters say it was more than 50 - when the result was first announced at the start of the month.

But in a nation that usually manages to avoid the massive bloodshed that afflicts other countries in the region, like Congo and Central African Republic, when power is contested, Bongo said he was confident of a peaceful resolution.

"It is business as usual. We are not worried about this state of crisis," Bongo told Reuters in an interview late on Saturday. "I think that we will go back to normal ... Gabonese are peace-loving people."

On Sunday, soldiers deployed along main roads and a helicopter hovered over Ping's headquarters. A fighter jet roared above the city. The red and white taxis that normally ply its palm-lined seaside avenues were mostly absent.

"Things are not normal. The people's voice was stolen," Richard Obame, 46, an unemployed Ping supporter, said, after the jet noise had died down.

"If it was calm, would we need the military presence on the streets and the helicopters above the house of Mr Ping?"

And yet Ping, whom authorities have threatened to arrest for inciting violence, has so far refrained from calling people on to the streets. That raises the possibility of a peaceful resolution, although Ping insists that the will of the Gabonese people be respected.

A statement from the office of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday said he "welcomes the call by the president-elect for national dialogue."

"It is of utmost importance that all actors demonstrate maximum restraint," it added.

"OPEN GOVERNMENT"

Ali Bongo came to power in a contentious 2009 election following the death of his father Omar Bongo, who was president of Gabon for 42 years and to whom Ping himself was very close.

"Bongo Junior", as he is nicknamed, is showing signs of wanting to handle opponents in much the same way his father did: by bringing them into the tent. On Saturday he called for members of opposition parties to come and join his cabinet.

Communications minister Alain-Claude Bilie By Nze was quoted on France's Journal du Dimanche website on Sunday as saying that from next week there would be "an open government, with members of the opposition, civil society and independent personalities."

Whether this will be "business as usual" for Gabon and the Bongo dynasty may partly depend on the international reaction.

Gabon has never had a poll that international observers judged free and fair, and Western powers, especially ex-colonial master France, always looked the other way.

But on Saturday France and the European union both expressed "doubt" about the poll, which swung it for Bongo on a province, Haut-Ogooue, that gave him 95 percent of a 99.9 percent turnout.

Bongo pledged to address some of the issues that have fueled anger in the country of 1.8 million, like youth unemployment and over-reliance on dwindling oil revenues.

"We want to move from just enjoying the profits of oil to an economy where we can also start producing," Bongo told Reuters. "Manufacturing is very important ... We are also inviting the national and international business community to invest. They want to find a country that is in peace and stable."

(Additional Reporting by Gerards Wilfried Obamgome in Libreville and Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Adrian Croft)



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