, LIBREVILLE, Aug 30 – Gabonese voters stood in long lines Sunday to pick a successor to Omar Bongo Ondimba, who ruled the oil-rich nation for 41 years before his death in June.
Hundreds of people queued up in front of schools turned into polling stations in several districts of the capital Libreville which opened two hours late.
The election could keep the presidency in the hands of Bongo’s family, with his son and former defence minister Ali Bongo, 50, favoured to come out on top against 17 other candidates.
Omar Bongo, 73, had been Africa’s longest serving ruler, and opposition candidates have pledged to end what they call deep-rooted corruption as well as bring about a greater distribution of resources.
Meanwhile, Ali Bongo, who boasts the backing of the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party and a huge campaign war chest, has both defended his father’s legacy and labeled detractors turncoats while also pledging change.
"It’s not contradictory — not at all," he told AFP while attending a final campaign rally on Saturday.
Pointing to thousands of supporters chanting his name, he said, "How could I not be confident?"
Gabon is sub-Saharan Africa’s fourth biggest oil producer, the world’s third biggest provider of manganese, a metal with industrial metal alloy uses, particularly in stainless steels, and Africa’s second biggest wood exporter.
But an estimated 60 percent of the population of 1.5 million live below the poverty line.
Though candidates have decried the lack of development in the west African nation, several served in the government for years.
The four heavyweights are former ministers Ali Bongo, Andre Mba Obame and Casimir Oye Mba and radical opposition leader Pierre Mamboundou, and all have promised a fairer distribution of Gabon’s natural resources.
A total of 23 politicians were originally in the race.
On Friday representatives of five candidates, including former prime minister Jean Eyeghe Ndong and former opposition leader Paul Mba Abessole, told a press conference that they had decided to stand down and support influential former interior minister Mba Obame.
But four contenders including Oye Mba, a former oil minister, denied that they had pulled out of the race as alleged in a statement issued by Mba Obame’s camp.
The developments sparked confusion, with Communications Minister Laure Olga Gondjout saying that the names of those who withdrew would remain on the ballot, before being contradicted by the electoral commission.
Many candidates have also questioned the electoral roll, saying 813,164 eligible voters in a country of 1.5 million was way too high and suggesting fraud.
More than 300 observers have been accredited for the vote, including from the African Union, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and a global grouping of francophone countries.
There have been warnings of potential post-election violence.
A group of leading intellectuals in Gabon on Saturday urged all sides not to resort to violence after the election, pointing to "numerous worrying signals" and warning of "confrontations" in the wake of the vote.
France, for decades deeply embroiled in the murky politics of its former colony, has taken pains to insist upon its neutrality in the run-up to the vote.
Under Omar Bongo, Gabon played a key role in the complex web of relationships in France’s former African empire.
The country’s borders were closed from late Friday and will not reopen until midnight Thursday. Full provisional results may not be available until Tuesday.