Gabon crisis reveals weaknesses in the AU's conflict prevention strategies

The disputed results of the elections in Gabon, announced on 31 August 2016, have led to open conflict between the two frontrunners, both of whom have claimed victory. An African Union (AU) observer mission, in a preliminary report, has pointed to flaws in the electoral system. Important lessons could be learnt about the AU’s strategies to prevent post-election violence and how to deal with this once it does break out.

Gabon held presidential elections on 27 August. Ali Bongo, the incumbent, faced 13 opposition candidates, including Jean Ping, former chairperson of the AU Commission (AUC) and former minister of foreign affairs.

On Wednesday 31 August the electoral commission (Commission Electorale Nationale Permanente, or CENAP) announced that Bongo had been re-elected with 49.8% of the votes while Ping obtained 48.23%, with a turnout of 59.46%.

Ping had proclaimed himself president even before the announcement of the results, and contested those announced by the CENAP. His supporters point to the 95,46% of the votes Bongo got in his stronghold of Haut-Ogooué, alleging fraud. The turnout in Haut-Ogoouéwas 99,4%. The former AUC chairperson has asked for a recount.

Jean Ping proclaimed himself president even before the announcement of the results
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Following the announcement of the results, violence erupted in the country, resulting in the burning of the parliament building in Libreville and the death of scores of demonstrators. About 1 000 people were arrested.

France, the United States and the European Union have called for the publication of the results by individual polling stations.

AU chairperson is taking the lead

The AU has remained silent during similar situations in the neighbouring Republic of Congo and Chad, where the results of elections earlier this year were strongly contested and, in the case of the Republic of Congo, some opposition leaders still remain in prison. However, the organisation has made several statements on Gabon. A closer look at these statements reveals that they do not all reflect the same approach to the crisis.

On 1 September AUC Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma took note of the results and expressed her concern over the outbreak of violence. She called upon Gabonese stakeholders to use legally established channels to resolve their disputes. From this perspective, the crisis is seen only as an electoral dispute that has led to violence. This explains the chairperson’s emphasis on the need to follow legal channels to resolve the dispute.

The AUC Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma expressed her concern over the outbreak of violence
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In its statement on 2 September the Peace and Security Council (PSC) underlined the need to address the situation in Gabon based on ‘consensus among all concerned Gabonese stakeholders in conformity with the relevant AU instruments’. This call for consensus and the reference to AU instruments indicate a perception of the situation in Gabon as a political crisis stemming from a disputed election and that should be addressed as such.

AU Chairperson Idriss Déby, the president of Chad, then released a statement on 3 September that calls on both Bongo and Ping to exercise restraint and to choose dialogue over conflict to solve the electoral dispute. In contrast with the PSC and the AUC, which did not propose any course of action, the AU chairperson took the matter further and hinted at possible mediation by the region, i.e. the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), of which Chad is a member, and the AU.He stressed ‘the commitment and the availability of the Union, and the states of the region to help Gabonese stakeholders to solve their differences through peaceful means’. In another communiqué released on 5 September, Déby said that ‘a high-level delegation composed of African heads of state, accompanied by senior officials of the AU Commission and the United Nations, is ready to be dispatched to Libreville, as soon as the conditions for such a visit are met’.

The outcome of this mediation attempt was still unknown at the time of publication.

AU’s challenges in preventing post-electoral crises

The outbreak of violence in Gabon raises questions about the effectiveness of the AU’s efforts in preventing political crises. Months before the elections Gabon had been the subject of early warning reports within the AU. These reports pointed to the risks posed by a tense political situation and a flawed electoral process.

In addition, the AU and ECCAS had deployed a joint election observation mission composed of 75 personnel, of whom 12 long-term observers were deployed three weeks before the vote. The observers visited 321 of 2 580 polling stations.

In its post-election report the mission identified several flaws in the electoral process: the restriction of civil liberties; the administration’s sway over the electoral commission; a lack of balance in the coverage of certain candidates by public media; and the fact that ‘the mission was not allowed in the open compilations centers that centralise the results of the polling against international standards and good practices’.

The electoral mission advocated some changes, including ‘the establishment of an independent electoral institution with the primary and sole responsibility of overseeing all phases of the electoral process’.

The underlying question is around the ability of the AUC to advocate for political reforms
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In light of the violent contestation of the results in Gabon, it does not seem as though the electoral mission contributed in any way to improving the transparency and fairness of the poll. One could ask whether the deployment of electoral missions three weeks before the polling day is sufficient to advocate structural changes in the organisation of elections.

The underlying question is around the ability of the AUC to advocate for political reform in AU member states. Currently, the AU lacks a formal framework for political dialogue between it and the state concerned to ensure that political reforms are introduced to avoid crises. While there are informal consultations between AU officials and national stakeholders prior to elections, the commitments made during these meetings are not binding.

The high-level panel for Gabon proposed by the AU chairperson in his 5 September statement would be an ad hoc arrangement and not the result of any permanent structure or intervention mechanism of the AU.

The main obstacle to creating such a framework is the principle of sovereignty, which means that an intervention by the AU could be considered as interference in the internal affairs of a member state. The AUC suffers from a lack of options when a member is not willing to change its policies according to AU recommendations. Moreover, the PSC is reluctant to include states that are not in open crisis on its agenda. Therefore, the responsibility for preventing a post-electoral crisis such as the one in Gabon for now lies with national stakeholders, because the impact of continental efforts is limited.

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