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Gabon on edge as it waits for election results

Residents queue at a bakery in the centre of Gabon’s capital Libreville on August 30, 2016 as they rush to stock up on bread fearing unrest ahead the official presidential election results © AFP / Marco Longari

Libreville, Gabon, Aug 30 – Security forces deployed on the deserted streets of Libreville Tuesday as Gabon awaited official results of the weekend presidential election that both the incumbent Ali Bongo and his main rival already claim to have won.

The interior minister said he would announce official results after the Cenap election commission meets at around 7:00 pm (1800 GMT), reiterating that it is illegal to release results before then.

Presidential challenger Jean Ping, a 73-year-old career diplomat, was said by his team to have a 60,000-vote lead over Bongo which could only be overturned with “massive fraud”.

Gabon presidential election © AFP / Philippe Mouche, Vincent Lefai

Bongo’s camp said the president — who came to power in a 2009 election held after the death of his father Omar Bongo, who had ruled the oil-rich central African country for 41 years — was guaranteed victory.

Many in Gabon fear a repeat of the violence that followed the 2009 election.

On Tuesday afternoon anti-riot police began to take up positions around Libreville and later established checkpoints in various parts of the capital, blocking access to the presidential palace. Light armoured vehicles also began to patrol along the Atlantic coast.

The embassy of France, the former colonial power, told French nationals not to move around the city.

– ‘Scared’ locals stock food –

Gabon opposition candidate Jean Ping has accused the Cenap electoral commission of tampering with the outcome of the poll © AFP/File / Marco Longari

In the late morning, residents poured into supermarkets and bakeries to stock up with food.

“We are being careful, we don’t know what is going to happen,” said a bakery customer who gave his name only as Raymond.

Bakery worker Dieudonne spoke of “hundreds” of baguettes flying off the shelves.

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“(People) are scared, they don’t know what’s going to happen but they have good reason to worry,” he said.

Gabonese President Ali Bongo casts his vote at a polling station in Libreville during the presidential election on August 27, 2016 © AFP / Marco Longari

EU observers said the vote in the oil-rich Central African country was “managed in a way that lacked transparency”.

Observers identified issues including voter lists not being posted outside polling stations, poor control of indelible ink applied to voters’ fingers to prevent them casting multiple ballots and ballot box seals that did not have serial numbers.

– ‘Heated’ discussions –

Sources close to Cenap said that they expected the Ping and Bongo camps to be part of “heated” discussions when the commission meets later Tuesday to discuss the result, warning that talks could go on “for hours.”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon phoned both candidates to express concern about the premature results they had released and urged them to ask their supporters to show restraint.

A supporter of Gabon’s opposition leader Jean Ping sings the national anthem outside the party headquarters in the capital Libreville on August 28, 2016 © AFP/File / Marco Longari

On Monday Ping accused the commission of tampering with the outcome of the poll and said the Gabonese people “want me to run the country and will never accept having the victory, their victory, stolen from them”.

He said they would “defend by all means” his victory, raising the spectre of a repeat of 2009, when several people were killed in clashes, buildings were looted and the French consulate in the economic capital Port Gentil was torched.

– Bitter accusations –

The Gabonese flag is reflected on the windscreen of a taxi driving through deserted streets of the capital Libreville on August 29, 2016, ahead of the proclamation of the official election results © AFP / Marco Longari

Campaigning in this election was marked by months of bitter exchanges, including accusations — and strenuous denials — that Bongo was born in Nigeria and therefore ineligible to run.

While victory for the opposition would end nearly 50 years of one-family rule in Gabon, it would not be a total break with the Bongo era — Ping worked for many years in the administration of Omar Bongo.

He later went on to serve as head of the African Union Commission and president of the UN General Assembly.

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Gabon has seen growing popular unrest in recent months, with numerous public sector strikes and thousands of layoffs in the oil sector.

One third of Gabon’s population lives in poverty, despite the country boasting one of Africa’s highest per capita incomes at $8,300 (7,400 euros) thanks to pumping 200,000 barrels of oil a day.

The collapse in the price of oil has hit the Gabonese economy hard, and Ping has described Bongo’s attempts to diversify away from petroleum as window dressing.

France is also keeping a close eye on the election in Gabon.

On Sunday, Ping said he was invited to the French embassy in Libreville.

“The Bongo family has been ruling Gabon for more than half a century. A change would be a sign of good democratic health, and it would set an example,” France’s governing Socialist Party said in a statement.

Bongo’s spokesman hit back, branding the statement “interventionist and neo-colonial”.

Pro-opposition media meanwhile began to celebrate.

“The French Socialist Party recognises Ping’s victory,” read the front page headline of opposition daily La Loupe.

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