Press Review CW 35/2023: Elected by the people?
Press Review 25 August 2023 to 1 September 2023

Gabon’s military deposes president after re-election

On Wednesday, a group of Gabonese officers announced that they had deposed President Ali Bongo Ondimba and dissolved all of the country’s constitutional bodies. Shortly before, the electoral authority of the Central African state had confirmed Bongo’s victory in the presidential elections held on Saturday: With a turnout of around 57%, Bongo secured a third term in office with 64.2%. Albert Ondo Ossa, the candidate of the largest opposition alliance Alternance 2023 (A23), was defeated by 30.7%, according to official figures. However, the elections had not met the conditions for a transparent, credible and inclusive ballot, the Putishsten justified the removal of President Bongo. Meanwhile, international election observers and journalists were not allowed to attend. The self-proclaimed Committee for Transition and the Restoration of Institutions (Comité pour la transition et la restauration des institutions, CTRI) appointed Brigadier General Brice Oligui Nguema, commander of the Gabonese Republican Guard and a relative of Bongo Ondimba, as interim president. According to CTRI, he is to be sworn in next Monday. The opposition alliance A23 welcomed the coup and called for a recount of the ballots. A few hours after his removal by the military, Bongo addressed his supporters at home and abroad in a video message from house arrest, calling on them to support him. He and several members of his family, including his son Noureddin Bongo Valentin, were being held in various locations. Meanwhile, the military rulers announced that they would prosecute Noureddin Bongo Valentin, who officially served as the general coordinator for presidential affairs, a post created specifically for him, and as a strategic adviser to his father from 2019 to 2021, for corruption and treason. According to observers, the situation in the country is tense but peaceful. The country’s external borders remain temporarily closed. In the capital Libreville, there have been repeated boisterous rallies welcoming the actions of the military. The internet, access to which had been blocked by the Bongo government in the run-up to the elections, had meanwhile been made freely accessible again. A number of countries, including France and Germany, as well as the USA and the UK, strongly condemned the coup. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s (EU) High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, condemned the military takeover but said there would be no mission to evacuate EU citizens for the time being due to the calm situation in the country. The African Union (AU), meanwhile, called for the immediate restoration of constitutional order in the country and suspended Gabon until further notice. The Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed concern in an official statement and called on the coup leaders to guarantee the safety of Bongo Ondimba. China had replaced the former colonial power France as the country’s largest trading partner in 2014. Ali Bongo had come to power in 2009 after his father Omar Bongo, who had ruled the country since 1967, died after a long illness. In total, the Bongo family ruled the country for almost 60 years. Gabon, which has been a member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) since 1975, has considerable mineral resources. In 2021 alone, the country exported crude oil worth US$3.6 billion, mostly to China, India, and South Korea, as well as Indonesia and Spain. According to critics, however, this wealth benefits the general population only to a limited extent. A good third of the approximately 2.4 million inhabitants live below the poverty line.

Disputed re-election in Zimbabwe

On Sunday, the Zimbabwe National Electoral Commission (ZEC) announced the re-election of incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who will rule the Southern African country for another five years. The 80-year-old Mnangagwa, who heads the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), which has ruled the country since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, won with around 53% of the vote against his main rival, 45-year-old Nelson Chamisa of the Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) – and thus avoiding a run-off. Chamisa received about 44% of the vote, according to ZEC. Voter turnout was 69%, lower than the turnout in the last election in 2018 (75%). According to official figures, the ruling party ZANU-PF was also successful in the parliamentary elections: It secured 136 of the 210 parliamentary seats up for election while the CCC won 73 seats. One of the parliamentary seats remains vacant for the time being, after the election in the Gutu West constituency had already been postponed in July due to the death of a candidate after nominations were already closed. The CCC immediately rejected the results and called for a re-run of the elections. The conduct of the election was flawed and voters in urban areas, where the opposition is traditionally strong, were deliberately suppressed, the CCC alleged. The elections, initially set for 23 August only, were extended by one day by Mnangagwa after huge delays in many constituencies and wards on election day. According to reports, some 40 local election observers, including from the Zimbabwe Election Support Network and the Election Resource Centre, were arrested by police on the second day. Criticism of the electoral process and the conduct of the election was accordingly also voiced by civil society as well as regional and international election observation missions (EOMs). Fabio Massimo Castaldo, head of the European EOM, criticised the adoption of repressive legislation in the run-up to the election, as well as acts of violence and intimidation that created a “climate of fear” on election day. Surprisingly harsh criticism also came from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which had been rather reserved in past elections. The preliminary report of the SADC Election Observation Mission (SEOM) criticised, among other things, the cancellation of opposition rallies, the biassed reporting by the state media as well as alleged attempts to intimidate voters and hence, considered the elections in several aspects as undemocratic. All in all, the elections had not met the requirements of the Zimbabwean Constitution, the Electoral Act and the SADC Principles and Guidelines for Democratic Elections, they concluded. However, this criticism was met with much displeasure by the government. For instance, the EU ambassador to Zimbabwe was summoned on Monday by Foreign Minister Frederick Shava, who described the EU-EOM’s preliminary report as “full of misinterpretations and allegations”. The head of SEOM and former vice-president of Zambia, Nevers Mumba, faced personal attacks on television, social media and in newspapers following the release of the preliminary SADC report. Meanwhile, it is questionable which path the CCC will take to push through its demand for the re-run of elections. Many experts consider the legal process to be unpromising due to the lack of independence of the judiciary from the ruling party, which could be observed in numerous trials in the run-up to the election. Accordingly, opposition leader Chamisa has already turned to regional partners and called on them to reject the election results and demand new elections under international supervision. In 2008, after violence broke out in the country following similarly disputed elections, SADC had intervened and, through mediation attempts led by South Africa’s then President Thabo Mbeki, secured the formation of a Government of National Unity to implement reforms in the state. On Monday, the Panel of the Elders, one of SADC’s mediation mechanisms, arrived in Zimbabwe – at the invitation of the government, that was, however, issued prior to the election and the release of SEOM’s election report. Led by former Botswana Minister of Labour and Home Affairs, Charles Tibone, the group held discussions with various stakeholders involved in the election, including the opposition party CCC. However, hopes of a unified push for reforms from SADC were dampened by South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, who congratulated Emmerson Mnangagwa on his re-election in an official statement on Monday. Meanwhile, fears are growing of a post-election violence similar to the last one in 2018, which resulted in deadly clashes between protesters and security forces.

In other news

The three-day comedy festival Zéro Polémik ended on Sunday in Bukavu, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The festival, which was held for the sixth time, brought together artists and fans of stand-up comedy, improv comedy and many other comedic genres. After several decades of conflict in the DRC, the festival aims to use humour and shared laughter to help strengthen social cohesion and peace in local communities and overcome traumatic experiences. At the same time, Zéro Pólemik offers the opportunity to promote young comedians and provide education in an entertaining way. Headliners were the two well-known Ivorian comedians Michel Gohou and Clémentine Papouet. During his performance, the former called on African politicians to lead the continent united and without “polemics”.

Travel information

The non-profit organisation Global Bridges e.V. offers the opportunity to participate in a study trip to South Africa and Botswana from 23 September to 4 October 2023. During the trip, meetings are planned with high-ranking representatives from government, finance, the private sector and the civil society sector of the two countries – as well as a meeting with Dr Sikhulile Moyo, winner of the German Africa Award 2022. Further information on the programme and organisational procedure can be found here. The aim of the trip is to promote an in-depth understanding of the future prospects of Botswana and South Africa, to identify potential investment opportunities and partnerships, and to engage in intercultural exchange. If you are interested in participating in the trip, you can find more information on contact persons and registration here.

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