Gabon Is Recounting Its Votes, But the Ballots Were Already Burned

Gabon Is Recounting Its Votes, But the Ballots Were Already Burned

NEW YORK — Gabonese officials announced this week that the country’s Constitutional Court will recount votes from last month’s controversial presidential election, when incumbent Ali Bongo Ondimba defeated opposition leader Jean Ping by just 5,594 votes.

Now they’re threatening to arrest Ping if he disagrees with the court’s results and protests in the capital of Libreville turn violent again.

In an exclusive interview Wednesday with Foreign Policy, Gabonese Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Moussa-Adamo said that Ping’s goal has been “to create chaos so that the international community will step in and rule the country.”

Were that to happen, he predicted, Ping would eventually try to organize new elections and take over the presidency. Moussa-Adamo’s comments, in New York, followed a Libreville press conference Wednesday where government spokesman Alain-Claude Bilie told reporters that “if [Ping] crosses the line, he will be arrested.”

Gabon has garnered international attention in the past month as protesters have taken to the streets, claiming the August elections were rigged in favor of Bongo, whose family has ruled the oil-rich nation for decades. Bongo’s camp insists there was no rigging on its side, and has accused Ping of agitating his supporters in order to destabilize the country. It’s unclear how many people have been killed in the post-election violence, as the opposition claims upwards of 100 are dead and the government says the real count is a fraction of that. Around 1,000 people have been arrested. 

Though Bongo’s government has agreed that the votes from at least some polling stations will be recounted, it’s refusing to allow African Union observers to observe the process. Moreover, Moussa-Adamo said, all of the ballots were immediately burned after the vote, so “it’s more of a review and a tabulation than a recount.”

He said the burned ballots should come as little surprise. “At every single voting station, the results are read out openly in front of everybody, then everything is tallied, there’s a tally sheet, and the actual ballots are burned in front of everybody,” Moussa-Adamo told FP. Additionally, he said, members of the opposition and ruling parties as well as the independent electoral commission sign the sheets before the ballots are burned.  

An actual recount of individual votes would be impossible, he said, because “the only thing that remains are the tally sheets.”

Steve McDonald, a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Africa Program who has observed two elections in Gabon, told FP that he has “never heard of burning the election ballots so quickly; in fact, really, never at all until long after the countdown.” (A report released by the National Democratic Institute ahead of the election said that Gabonese officials planned to burn them immediately, but recommended they wait until the contestation period was over before doing so.)

Now, McDonald said, by refusing to allow independent observation of the recount, “one would get the suspicion that they are trying to rig it.”

But Moussa-Adamo compared allowing the African Union to observe the recount to allowing outsiders to observe Supreme Court procedures in the United States. He also said that it is “stupid and unfair” to compare the unrest in Gabon to other African nations where there have been contested votes or post-election violence over the past year. 

“When you had a problem here between Bush and Gore, did an observer go to the Supreme Court and see how you do this?” he asked. “It’s not in the law. Are you asking the government of Gabon to break its own law?”

The results should be announced on Friday.

Photo credit: MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images