By Jean Ping*
New York Times -September 2: On Saturday, Aug. 27, presidential elections were held in my country, Gabon, in West Africa, and I was the candidate who won by a substantial vote margin. Nearly a week later, I would have expected to be addressing the world as Gabon’s president-elect, ready and willing to work with the United States and all our international partners to fight terrorism, build our economies and improve the lives of our citizens through increased development and cooperation.
Instead, I am hoping that the American people, and all others who care about democracy, will help my country through a crisis for our democracy. I’m in Gabon where the current president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, is using our national security forces — armed with valuable military weaponry provided by the United States to fight terrorism — against our own people. In the reports I’ve heard, at least a dozen are dead — probably more — and hundreds wounded; thousands have been arrested, including 23 of my campaign workers.
In order to keep these people from telling their own stories, Mr. Bongo has been shutting off the internet for hours at a time. But thanks to social media and brave Gabonese citizens, the story will be told. Online it is easy to find images of the horror and violence that Mr. Bongo’s repression of protest has set loose over the past week. As I write, on this Thursday morning, helicopters from Mr. Bongo’s presidential guard are loudly circling above my campaign headquarters, and the streets are full of protesters clashing with Mr. Bongo’s security forces.
Why is Mr. Bongo doing all this? Well, when the people of Gabon voted for their leader, they chose me. They chose a change from the dynastic regime that has ruled our country since 1967. Mr. Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo Ondimba, ruled from 1967 to 2009, when the son took over. Now Mr. Bongo is throwing a deadly and dangerous tantrum because the people of Gabon told him that it’s time for him to go.
Specifically, after Saturday’s vote — which was peaceful, orderly and open to international observers — election officials, provincial governors and international witnesses could see that I had a double-digit lead across the country, and Ali Bongo got nervous.
These results were not surprising because the two other major challengers withdrew from the race before the election and backed me as the unified opposition candidate against Mr. Bongo. The votes — 373,310 in all — were collected, and preliminary counts from eight of nine provinces showed me with a solid lead as late as Tuesday.
But on Wednesday, when Mr. Bongo’s interior minister announced the “official results,” including the ninth province — Mr. Bongo’s own base — he shocked us all by announcing that the voter turnout in that province had been 99.9 percent (in contrast to a national turnout elsewhere of 59 percent) and that 95 percent of the province had voted for the incumbent. Curiously, the total number of voters there included several thousand more than actually live in the province.
On that basis, Mr. Bongo claimed victory by 1.57 percent of the national vote and declared himself president until 2025.
We have seen “results” like these before, but only from sham elections, most often in dictatorships. The citizens of Gabon had peacefully and respectfully exercised their right to freely and fairly choose our country’s next president. Mr. Bongo did not approve of their choice, so he substituted his will for theirs. While we are disappointed, we were not surprised. Mr. Bongo did the same thing in 2009; he was up to his same tricks again.
We, the people of Gabon, demand that Mr. Bongo end the violence and stop ordering our brothers, sisters and children in the security forces to attack our own. We demand that he stop seeking retribution against his political adversaries and their supporters. We demand that he release the election results by bureau and polling place so that independent observers can verify a recount of all the votes and confirm the will of our people.
As I said in a public appeal to the world last Wednesday, we also want the United States to accept nothing less than true democracy in Gabon, as officials in Canada, France and throughout the European Union have already committed to do. And we hope America’s citizens, its leaders and its policy makers will send a clear message to Mr. Bongo that he cannot steal an election.
I have already called on my fellow Gabonese citizens to protest peacefully until our demands have been met. I will continue this fight until our voice and our will are respected and accepted.
*Jean Ping, an economist and former foreign minister of Gabon, is also a former chairman of the African Union and was president of the 59th session of the United Nations General Assembly, in 2004 and 2005.