Libreville: Supporters of Gabon’s President Ali Bongo and his chief rival Jean Ping both said on Sunday they were set to win a presidential election that has proved to be the most serious challenge yet to the Bongo family’s half-century rule in the tiny, oil-rich nation.
The rival sides also traded accusations of fraud allegedly committed during Saturday’s vote, raising the prospect of increased tension in the wake of an uncharacteristically bitter campaign.
Despite the interior minister warning candidates that giving results ahead of the official announcement was against the law, Ping, 73, the president’s chief challenger, distributed figures showing him easily beating Bongo.
“The general trends indicate we’re the winner of this important presidential election,” Ping told reporters and a large crowd of cheering supporters gathered at his campaign headquarters in the capital Libreville.
“Despite numerous irregularities… you have managed to thwart this regime’s congenital traps of fraud,” he said.
Bongo, 57, who first won election after his father Omar died in 2009 after 42 years in office, has benefited from being the incumbent in a country with a patronage system lubricated by oil largesse.
Gabon’s one-round election means the winner simply requires more votes than any other candidate. In 2009, Bongo won with 41.73% of the vote.
Addressing Ping’s declaration, Bongo warned his rival against pre-empting the result by claiming victory before an official announcement.
“You must not sell the skin of the bear before you’ve killed him,” he said, speaking at one of his campaign offices in Libreville. “In any case, I am confident.”
Minutes earlier, his spokesman Alain Claude Bilie By Nzé told journalists that Bongo was leading in five out of Gabon’s nine provinces.
In comments broadcast overnight on state-owned television, the spokesman went even further, stating that Bongo was poised to win another term in office.
“Even if no figure can or should be given at this stage, we are, in light of information we are receiving, able to say that our candidate… will claim victory,” he said.
Bilie By Nzé also said ‘massive fraud’ had been observed during the vote, particularly in polling stations located in opposition strongholds.
A statement released by the interior ministry on Sunday acknowledged irregularities but offered little detail.
“The elections were calm and without major conflict… In spite of fraud noted in some polling stations, the process is satisfactory and positive for all of the observers,” it said, adding that official results would be announced on Tuesday.
An oil producer with a population of less than two million, Gabon is one of Africa’s richest countries.
However, declining oil output and falling prices have resulted in budget cuts and provided fodder for opposition claims that the average person has struggled under Bongo’s leadership. His re-election bid was also hobbled by a series of high-profile defections from the ruling party.
Ping, one of ten candidates contesting the poll, is a former foreign minister and African Union Commission chairman, who was a close ally of Omar Bongo.
Some opposition supporters have called into question Bongo’s Gabonese nationality, claiming he was adopted from eastern Nigeria as a baby, a charge that risks fuelling xenophobic sentiment and which the president denies.