Libreville, Gabon, Sep 23 – The streets of Libreville were empty late Friday, with residents fearing a new bout of bloodshed as the Constitutional Court prepared to rule on who will be Gabon’s next president following bitterly-fought elections.
With the country in political limbo for nearly a month, concern has been growing that a ruling in favour of President Ali Bongo could spark a fresh wave of opposition protests.
The court was expected to rule Friday on whether to uphold Bongo’s wafer-thin victory in the August 27 elections or to overturn it, according to plaintiffs.
The decision “will be announced at 10.30pm (2130 GMT),” said Jean-Remy Bantsantsa, a lawyer for defeated challenger Jean Ping, who filed a legal challenge earlier this month to demand a recount.
“They have just phoned me,” Bantsantsa said.
Bongo will speak to the press after the announcement, a spokesman for the presidency said.
Ping, a career diplomat and a former top official at the African Union, is hoping to end the Bongo family’s 50-year grip on power in this oil-rich country of 1.8 million people.
Across Libreville, the atmosphere was on a knife-edge with riot police deployed at key junctions in order to head off any more unrest should the judges decide against 73-year-old Ping.
A former spy chief and cousin of Bongo who recently came out against the president was arrested in the city Friday, according to a security source.
Leon-Paul Ngoulakia, 58, was detained while travelling in a vehicle carrying “a large sum of money along with leaflets inciting sedition”, according to the source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
– ‘Judgement Day’ –
Along Libreville’s seafront, trucks carrying paratroopers and soldiers, their weapons at the ready, rumbled alongside cars, shared taxis and armoured vehicles on a road which passes both the court and the presidential palace.
Officers in riot gear had begun fanning out through the city on Thursday, and by Friday morning, long queues could be seen outside banks and cash machines.
“Everyone is panicking, everyone is afraid,” explained Jean Rodrigue Boukoumou, a teacher who like many others was waiting to withdraw his money to stock up on food.
“We want to withdraw our money to be able to buy provisions. We have families to feed if the country descends into chaos,” he told AFP, expressing a widely-held fear.
“Judgement day” blared the headline in one newspaper, while another front page led with: “The hour of the last judgement is upon us.”
“Until the results are announced, you are requested to avoid going anywhere until further notice,” the embassy of France said on its website in a notice to its 10,000-strong community in the country.
Ping has warned the country could face serious instability if the court rejects his appeal for a recount.
But the government has warned Ping, a former ally-turned-opponent, that he would be held responsible if fresh violence breaks out, and could find himself arrested if he crosses “the red line”.
– Court under huge pressure –
The court met on Thursday and has retired to consider its verdict. Under the constitution, there is a 15-day deadline for resolving electoral disputes, which technically expires on Friday.
“The case is under deliberation,” said the court’s president Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo, a former beauty queen and one-time mistress of Bongo’s father.
Ping has made clear he believes Bongo has the court in his pocket, referring to it as “the Tower of Pisa that always leans the same way”.
And his entourage reacted furiously after Mborantsuo gave an interview earlier this month in which she said it would be “rare” to decide on a reversal of the results.
The nation erupted in protest after Bongo was declared the winner following an election mired in allegations of fraud.
During the ensuing chaos, demonstrators set fire to the parliament and clashed violently with police, who arrested around a thousand people.
Opposition figures say “more than 50” people were killed in the violence, but the government gave a figure of three dead.
In his legal challenge, Ping asked for a recount in Haut-Ogooue province, a stronghold of the Bongo family, where the president won more than 95 percent of the votes and turnout was declared to be more than 99 percent.
EU observers have said there was a “clear anomaly” in the province’s results.
On Tuesday, lawyers for the two sides said they had agreed to a recount although they disagreed over the scope of it.