- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
A potential civil war is brewing in Gabon, and could be avoided if the international community rejects President Ali Bongo Ondimba and the contested August elections that empowered him, the nation’s top opposition leader told Foreign Policy on Wednesday.
Opposition leader Jean Ping of the Union of Forces for Change party, who accuses Ali Bongo of being a “cheater” after falling fewer than 6,000 ballots short in the hotly-contested vote, conceded Gabon has returned to relative calm following post-election violence that, according to authorities, killed three, wounded 105, and saw over 800 arrested. But in a 40-minute interview, Ping said he has helped foster peace — and is now turning to the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations to sustain it by recognizing his victory.
There are those, Ping said, who credit President Ali Bongo with the calm. “Wear your glasses, scratch a little bit,” Ping warned of simmering violence he described below Gabon’s surface that he said could bring the country to civil war.
Officials at the Gabonese government’s embassy in Washington and United Nations mission in New York did not have an immediate response Wednesday when told of Ping’s comments.
Ping continued to blame election fraud for his loss in the Aug. 27 vote to Ali Bongo, whose father, the late President Omar Bongo, ruled Gabon for nearly 42 years. Ping served as foreign minister to Omar Bongo, and fathered two children with the late president’s daughter.
He said he followed the international community’s instruction to protest the vote through peaceful and legal channels, although “there is no legal process in a dictatorship.”
And so “what we told them would happen, happened,” Ping said, referring to Gabon’s Constitutional Court, which reaffirmed Ali Bongo’s victory — even though the ballots had already been burned and a full recount could not happen.
He is refusing to participate in a national dialogue called by Ali Bongo to end the political stalemate even if he supports some of its potential results. Election reform, for example, would be a welcome outcome of the dialogue, Ping said — although it could also delay parliamentary elections set for next month. He also acknowledged — but could not provide a solution — a delay could leave Gabon’s legislature empty when Parliament’s five-year mandate expires in January.
Why, then, is Ping refusing to take part in the dialogue, even though some other individuals in the opposition have agreed to participate? First of all, as he put it, Ping is “between a rock and a hill”: his supporters have threatened to burn his house if he gives in, and Ali Bongo wants him dead.
But more broadly, Ping said, the dialogue will only serve to entrench Ali Bongo’s leadership — even as he gives in to reforms and other public demands. “‘You will never survive by only the stick. You should have a carrot,’” Ping said, surmising the advice he believes the president was given shortly after the election as a means of holding onto power.
Ping insisted he will instead organize his own dialogue, and estimated more than 80 percent of Gabonese will join it. Of those who do not, he said, “let them go.”
But the reality remains Ping is not governing Gabon as its president, even though he said he did everything that the international community has asked of him. And as he has toiled to legally contest the vote and urge calm among his supporters, Ping has watched as President Ali Bongo invests not in education or the health of his citizens, but in a new stadium and marinas. “The dreams of someone who is pathologically ill,” Ping scoffed of the new development that, he said, has done nothing to help Gabon’s economy or pull vast segments of the public out of poverty.
He is in Washington this week to lobby for support as the international community awaits an upcoming report from European Union election observers on whether the August vote was, in fact, unfair.
“They know who is the winner,” he said, “so say it.”
As to whether President-elect Donald Trump’s administration will agree, Ping was unsure. But he cited universal democratic principles that he said transcend not just American political parties, but also national borders across the world. He said his own electoral woes are not analogous to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who won the U.S. popular vote on Nov. 8 but lost the electoral college — and therefore the entire race — to Trump.
That the American president must win the electoral vote “is the rule in your country,” Ping said. “We should respect the rules.”
But President Ali Bongo, he insists, did not. “The winners should win,” Ping said. “The losers should lose … a cheater is a cheater.”
And with that, Ping said he is the rightful president of Gabon, and wants to install democratic institutions, freedom of expression, and rule of law in his country. This, he says, will be “the easiest thing to do.” He also promises to invest in education, professional development, and stable housing. And he could do all of that, he said, if only the international community would say that he won.
And so Ping waits on the world to weigh in, insisting that he does not know what violence will break out across his country if the international community does not.
“They could avoid a civil war,” Ping told FP. “If they don’t, I don’t know what will happen.”
FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images