Gabon's president seeks third term in elections that could extend a 55-year political dynasty

LIBREVILLE, Gabon (AP) — Gabon’s president is seeking a third term in elections this weekend that could extend his family's 55-year political dynasty. The capital of Libreville, meanwhile, is bracing for a repeat of the violence that has marred balloting in the past.

The central African nation’s 800,000-plus eligible voters are to elect local lawmakers, national assembly members and the next president.

Incumbent Ali Bongo Ondimba, 64, who won his current term in office by a narrow margin, is being challenged by economics professor and former education minister Albert Ondo Ossa.

Ossa's surprise nomination came just a week before the vote and followed a closed-door meeting of heavyweights in the opposition coalition.

Bongo has served two seven-year terms and seeks to extend his family’s 55-year political dynasty with a third. Bongo, then the minister of defense, came to power in 2009 after the death of his father, Omar Bongo, who ruled the country for 41 years.

Ossa says his goal is to break Gabon out of the status quo. He says that if elected, he would his first dissolve the national assembly, redraw the electoral map and organize new legislative elections, to form a government committed to addressing economic inequality.

Every vote held in Gabon since the country’s return to a multi-party system in 1990 has ended in violence. Clashes between government forces and protesters following the 2016 elections killed four people, according to official figures.

Opposition politician Jean Ping blamed election manipulation for his loss at the time — by less than 2% of the vote — and said the real death toll was much higher.

Analysts and observers are also concerned about possible violence.

By leaving rising unemployment unaddressed, “the current regime is sowing the seeds of post-electoral violence,” said Noël Bertrand Boudzanga, a literature professor and member of a civil society organization aimed at electoral transparency in Gabon.

President Bongo's objective is “to keep power at all costs,” Boudzanga said.

Nearly 40% of Gabon’s youth, aged 15-24, were out of work in 2020, according to the World Bank, a marked increase since Bongo took office.

In Libreville, some residents are stockpiling supplies and securing their property. Others are leaving town.

André Tsamba plans to take his children nearly 200 miles (308 kilometers) south of Libreville to the town of Mouila during the elections.

“We’ll be back at the start of the school year if all goes well,” Tsamba said.

Last week, marking Gabon's Independence Day, Bongo pledged to make the voting as secure as possible.

“All our nation’s defense and security forces will be called upon to protect your voices, protect your choices, (and) protect your homes and hearths,” he said.

For some, Bongo is the safe option.

Ninella Mavoungou, an employee of a communications agency in Libreville, said he will vote in his home city of Port-Gentil. "I’ll absolutely be voting for my candidate, Ali (Bongo), for the stability of the country,” Mavoungou said.

The unexpected choice of Ossa, a relatively minor political actor until now, follows recent changes by the government which barred split-ticket voting. As an independent candidate, with no legislators attached to his ballot, voters can choose Ossa without being forced to elect national assembly deputies of the same party.

“We put the national interest ahead of personal and selfish interests,” said longtime opposition figure Alexandre Barro Chambrier, who supported Ossa’s nomination over his own, on Sunday.

Ossa and his supporters say the Bongo family dynasty must end.

“The opposition’s single candidate gives us hope for a changeover, so I’ll be voting,” said 48-year-old Martine Ntsame, a Libreville resident.