Gabon braces for violence on eve of election ruling

September 22, 2016 11:21 AM EDT

The remains of a burned car is seen outside Gabon's National Assembly which was set on fire during unrest following the disputed reelection of President Ali Bongo earlier this month in Libreville, Gabon, September 20, 2016. REUTERS/Edward McAllister


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By Edward McAllister and Gerauds Wilfried Obangome

LIBREVILLE (Reuters) - The scars from earlier violence in Gabon's palm-lined capital warn of what may lie ahead: the parliament building gutted by fire; the opposition headquarters riddled with bullet holes; shops looted and their windows smashed.

They are traces of the riots that erupted in Libreville after a disputed Aug. 27 election handed victory to President Ali Bongo, enabling him to extend his family's half-century in power in a result rival Jean Ping denounced as fraudulent.

A final court ruling that is expected on Friday represents Gabon's last chance of solving the dispute by constitutional means. And the Gabonese are bracing for a fresh explosion of violence if, as many fear, it fails to do so.

When Elvis Abagha didn't come home after attending an anti-government protest in Libreville, his elder brother Bekale became worried and he called several friends. None had any news.

Two weeks later, on Sept. 13, Bekale got a call from the morgue. Elvis' dead body was laid on a table, bloody where a bullet had pierced his chest. He never got an explanation.

"I was shocked and angry," he told Reuters, explaining why he had joined the opposition.

"If Ali Bongo wins, I will find another way to fight."

Ping says that between 50 and 100 were killed in clashes with police after Aug. 27; the government just six. Either way, many Gabonese feel the body count could be about to rise.

Oil workers are staying at home until after the ruling to protect their families, potentially jeopardizing the central African country's 200,000 barrels-per-day output.

"WE WON'T LET THEM AGITATE"

Whenever opposition formed to the rule of Bongo's father, Omar Bongo, he proved adept at subduing it by using patronage from oil funds to buy off opponents. The strategy enabled him to stay in power for 42 years, until his death in 2009.

But dwindling revenues from lower production and prices has whittled away the family war chest, and falling living standards have triggered a desire for change in this small, central African country of 1.8 million people.

Gabon has a GDP per capita of $10,000 a year, making it one of Africa's richest, yet this is less in real terms than it was in the 1980s, and most is concentrated in the hands of elites.

With Ping digging in, chances for a settlement seem slim.

Ping wants a recount in the Haut-Ogooue province, a Bongo stronghold where the president won 95 percent of the votes on a 99.9 percent turnout. Any court decision that upholds these numbers is likely to be rejected by Ping.

On Thursday, people scrambled to buy food in supermarkets, the army erected checkpoints around the capital and security forces patrolled the streets in increased numbers.

The government threatened to refer Ping to the International Criminal Court for inciting violence.

Interior Minister Pacome Moubelet said the previous day that he had beefed up "visible and invisible" security and warned against anyone planning violence.

"We know who they are, we know where they are. We are not going to let them agitate," he said.

"BIG BONGO FAMILY"

Libreville, a green and hilly oceanside city of 600,000, has bounced back since the violence. Buses have resumed and bread sellers stack their street stands high with baguettes, one of the many signs of Gabon's French colonial legacy.

But the fear is palpable.

"This was the first time I saw anything like this," said fruit hawker Moussavou Mouboki, gesturing past the stands of vegetables and sardines to a pharmacy gutted by fire.

Mouboki has sold bananas in Libreville's PK8 neighborhood of Libreville for the past 23 years. Now, she says, "we are scared that the riots will happen again ... We are afraid of the army and the people."

Some Ping supporters remain undaunted.

Jeremy Pambu, an unemployed 29-year-old, examined a notice board outside the opposition headquarters which showed photographs of people killed or missing since Aug. 27. He said two of his friends were killed in clashes with the police.

"I am ready to sacrifice my life," he said, visibly angry.

But in a country with a small elite who in many cases have family ties, it is not clear how many Gabonese believe Ping represents the kind of real change for which it would be worth dodging bullets.

The mixed-race son of a wealthy Chinese trader, Ping is a lifelong insider who was close to Bongo's father Omar and even fathered two children with Omar Bongo's daughter, Pascaline.

And the head of the Constitutional Court that will rule on the election result, Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo, was the long-time mistress of Omar Bongo.

U.S. Ambassador Cynthia Akuetteh was quoted in the French press last week as comparing Gabonese politics to "Dallas", a 1980s soap opera about a superrich Texan oil family constantly feuding and plotting against one another.

"Ping is part of the big Bongo family," said Stephane Ndong Mba, a mechanic in the Nkembo area of Libreville, explaining why he wouldn't stick his neck out for either side.

(Editing by Tim Cocks and Giles Elgood)



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