Voters in Gabon head for the polls on Saturday with President Ali Bongo Ondimba eager for a clear victory after a seven-year term in which health problems fuelled attacks on his fitness to govern.
The small oil-rich central African state has been ruled by Bongo since 2009, when he was voted in to succeed his father Omar, Gabon’s president for nearly 42 years.
The campaign has seen Bongo working hard for victory after his re-election in 2016, when a wafer-thin margin of just 5,500 votes was disputed as fraudulent by his rival Jean Ping.
That was followed by a stroke in October 2018 that sidelined Bongo for 10 months.
His prolonged absence stoked accusations he was incapable of governing effectively, and rumours spread that a lookalike was standing in for him.
In January 2019, there was an attempted coup — a mysterious affair involving a small number of soldiers that quickly fizzled out.
On his return from a long convalescence, Bongo re-engineered his image, promoting himself as a man of rigour bent on rooting out “traitors” and “profiteers” in his inner circle.
Those targeted included his chief of staff, Brice Laccruche Alihanga, now in prison along with several ministers and senior civil servants.
Visitors and diplomats say that Bongo today is mentally acute, though he has mobility problems in his right arm and leg.
Ahead of the vote, the 64-year-old has been on a nationwide tour, holding “republican” grassroots rallies.
The streets of the capital Libreville have been virtually wallpapered by posters of Bongo and the colours of his Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG).
The incumbent is far and away the front-runner among 13 candidates vying for the presidency, many of whom are unknowns.
The main opposition parties have belatedly joined ranks behind a single champion — Albert Ondo Ossa, a 69-year-old economics professor who served as a minister under Bongo from 2006 to 2009.
But he staged his first rally as the “consensus candidate” last Sunday.
– Election outcry –
Gabon’s 850,000 voters will cast their ballots in three elections — for the presidency, legislature and local councils.
But opposition groups are crying foul over an important change in balloting that was decided a month before polling day.
The change introduced a single ballot sheet for a party’s candidate for president and its candidates for the legislature — an impingement of the right to vote and the separation of powers, critics say.
The PDG already has an overwhelming majority in the outgoing National Assembly.
The opposition is also incensed by a change introduced five months ago that scrapped the need for a runoff if the first round failed to produce a winner with more than 50 percent of the vote.
Gabon’s 2.3 million people are, in per capita terms, among the richest in Africa, thanks to income from oil, manganese and timber.
But virtually all of the country’s finished goods and food are imported, and a third of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.