Albert-Bernard Bongo was born in the colony of French Equatorial Africa, in the city then known Lewai (now known as Bongoville, and no, that’s not a coincidence) in 1935, the youngest of 12 children. Unlike many future African politicians of his generation, he did not make his bones bravely resisting colonial power; he in fact obtained the rank of 1st Lieutenant in the French Air Force before his honorable discharge. Gabon obtained its independence from France in 1960, and the ambitious Bongo began his political career at precisely that moment. Over the next seven years he campaigned and worked for various members of President Leon M’Ba’s cabinet. In November 1966, M’Ba, whose health was declining rapidly, appointed him Vice President. His de facto reign began shortly after his appointment, although he would not formally assume the position of President until 13 months later, when M’Ba shuffled off this mortal coil.
Since that day, Gabon has been ruled by only two men: Bongo (who would change his name to El Hadj Omar Bongo in 1973, upon his conversion to Islam, and adding the surname Ondimba in honor of his own father in 2003), and one of his 30-odd children, the current president, Ali Bongo Ondimba. The younger Bongo had served as Minister of Defense from 2001-2009, and won the 2009 election just months after his father succumbed to cancer in a Barcelona hospital.
While a Bongo has never lost an election in Gabon, this should be taken with several sizeable grains of salt. For the first couple of decades of Bongo Sr’s rule, Gabon was legally a one party state, so his electoral victories were aided by a notable lack of alternatives on the ballot. The democratic quality of most of the subsequent Bongo electoral victories are also deeply suspect. In many ways, Ali Bongo’s most recent victory in 2016 (presidential terms are 7 years in Gabon) resembles the last election of the PRI’s era of one party rule in Mexico in 1994–opposition electoral strength was sufficiently robust that the kind of cheating he needed to do to win was obvious enough that no one could deny it, which led to widespread protests and violence. Bongo ultimately won by less than 2% that year, and it took some implausible late returns from his family’s home district (~95% of the vote, 99.9% turnout) to drag him over the finish line.
Bongo nominally faces 13 opponents, but most major opposition factions united behind Albert Ondo Ossa, an Economics professor at (wait for it) Omar Bongo University who served in various ministerial roles in Bongo Sr’s final administration. Several prominent challengers recently formed the “Alternance 2023 coalition,” which is united behind Ossa. His presidential campaign has been endorsed by several parties he is not tied to any specific party within that coalition. This fact is important because of a devious last minute rule change for this election:
The Gabonese Center for Elections announced the new rule last month, which critics immediately denounced, saying it is meant to favor the ruling PDG.
According to the rule, any vote for a local deputy would automatically be a vote for that deputy’s presidential candidate.
But critics say some opposition parties have not fielded candidates for the National Assembly elections.
Annaick Moubouyi-Boyer, a political analyst in the Gabonese capital Libreville, told VOA that the change, coupled with a constitutional change reducing two rounds of presidential voting to one, raises concerns as the stakes rise ahead of Saturday’s ballot.
“What’s at stake is thus to know if Gabon will find itself for the first time in its history with a president elected without a majority in parliament, which could pose a problem of governance,” she said.
Moubouyi-Boyer said that unlike previous elections, “everything will be played out in the first round,” adding that if the results are close — because of the support of a recently announced opposition coalition known as Alternance 2023 — “tensions will be high.”
Gabon is something of a petro-state, with oil production accounting for almost 40% of GDP and over 70% of exports; it’s not a major player in the geopolitics of oil because its oil reserves are modest by global standards in absolute terms, but large enough to loom large over the small country’s modest economy (Gabon has a population of about 2.4 million). Whether the Bongo family’s substantial control over much of this wealth continues will be decided soon enough. Unfortunately, the most likely outcome appears to be the presidency remaining in the Bongo family, even as that regime has less legitimacy than ever before. Here’s hoping a relatively peaceful transition of power emerges from this election, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
….I feel I would be remiss in not noting that Omar Bongo released a funk album in the late 70’s (his mother was also musically inclined; she divorced Bongo Sr. in 1987 to pursue her own musical career.) Thanks to the glorious age we live in, we can experience his musical stylings from our keyboards. I’ll leave any assessment of the quality of his output to our house music critics Erik or Elizabeth.