Gabon votes to replace late leader Bongo

Nairobi, Aug 31 (DPA) Gabon went to the polls Sunday in an election expected to continue the family dynasty of Omar Bongo, who ran the oil-producing nation for over 41 years until his death in June.

Voter turnout was reportedly high in the tiny West African country of 1.5 million, where Bongo’s son Ali-Ben, 50, was up against over a dozen candidates.

Ali-Ben has the support of the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party – and by extension the army and police – thus making him firm favourite.

Some 23 candidates were originally registered, but at least five pulled out on Friday to back opposition candidate Andre Mba Obame.

Opposition candidates, who are mainly campaigning on anti-corruption and economic justice platforms, have expressed concern that the elections would not be free and fair.

The size of the electoral roll – at 816,000 voters – has raised fears that the ruling party is planning to fix the election in Ali-Ben Bongo’s favour. Voting passed off peacefully, however.

Provisional results are expected Sep 2, but the head of the electoral commission has warned that delays may be likely.

Omar Bongo ruled virtually unchallenged and gained the record of being the world’s longest serving leader – no mean feat in a part of the world where coups have long been commonplace.

He was viewed as one of the ultimate political survivors, using corruption, cronyism and lashings of oil money to keep himself at the top for more than 40 years.

Bongo died as French authorities were investigating whether he had used hundreds of millions of dollars of Gabonese public funds to buy dozens of lavish properties in France. Most of the country’s 1.5 million citizens live in poverty.

The new president is unlikely to have the luxury of oil money to spread around political opponents for very long.

The African Development Bank said that oil production – estimated at 273,000 barrels of oil per day – dropped in 2008 and would continue on a downward trend unless new deposits are discovered.

Bongo’s successor is expected to begin a transition to an economy less dependent on oil.

Gabon’s other main exports are timber and manganese. It has also awarded iron ore mining rights to a Chinese-led consortium, which has yet to begin extraction.