Diplomatic Pouch / January 13, 2017
By Larry Luxner
Contentious and ugly as the 2016 U.S. race to the White House was, Jean Ping still thinks the United States is the epitome of democracy when it comes to presidential elections.
Unlike Hillary Clinton, who isn’t disputing the results even though she defeated Donald Trump in the popular vote, Ping says he is the rightful president of Gabon — not the West African country’s longtime dictator, Ali Bongo Ondimba.
“In spite of everything, it is absolute that I won massively, 60 to 40 percent,” Ping told the Diplomatic Pouchduring a recent meeting in Washington. Ping is referring to Gabon’s presidential elections of Aug. 27, 2016, in which Bongo — who has ruled Gabon since October 2009 — claims to have won by a razor-thin 5,594-vote margin.
According to official results, Bongo got 50.6 percent of the votes, compared to 47.2 percent for Ping. Yet the government claims that Bongo won more than 95 percent of the votes on a turnout of 99 percent in Haut Ogooué, his home province.
Following the official announcement claiming victory for Bongo, violence broke out across the Gabonese capital city of Libreville. Demonstrators set Gabon’s parliament building ablaze and clashed with policemen. Ping accused the Bongo regime of bombing his party headquarters by helicopter, killing two people and injuring a dozen others.
Since then, Ping said, his life has become a living hell — with government thugs threatening him with death if he continues challenging the regime, and supporters threatening him if he doesn’t.
“In Gabon, I am like somebody who is in jail. My house is surrounded by tanks and police cars,” the 73-year-old politician told us. “But I have to do what is right.”
From 2008 to 2012, Ping chaired the African Union. Once a political ally of Omar Bongo, the current president’s father, over time he grew tired of the Bongo family dynasty. Finally, last year, Ping decided to challenge the longtime leader for Gabon’s presidency and won the support of several key opposition leaders.
In mid-December, a European Union report confirmed that the election was rigged in favor of Bongo. The EU report proposed 11 urgent recommendations to be taken into consideration before the next parliamentary election scheduled for July 2017.
“We will like the international community especially the African Union, European Union and the United Nations to draw lessons from this report which demonstrates in an unchallenged manner that I, Jean Ping, won the presidential election,” he said.
Ping spoke to the Pouch during a visit to Washington in which he asked Congress to slap sanctions on his country and keep them in place until Bongo concedes the election.
“We are here to look for support, not money. We don’t need your money, or your troops,” he said. “What we need is your democracy to say the truth. I won the elections. I think it is clear enough for your democracy to recognize and reaffirm this.”
Ping cited House Resolution 821, co-sponsored by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York) and Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), which urged the Gabonese government to “respect democratic principles” during last year’s elections.
The Colorado-sized country, home to 1.7 million people, rejoined OPEC last July after an absence of more than two decades. It’s the 14-nation cartel’s smallest member — accounting for just 0.3 percent of global oil supply — yet petroleum brings in more than 80 percent of exports, two-thirds of state revenues and 43 percent of total GDP.
“We are asking for sanctions from all our partners, targeted sanctions which will not affect the population, but instead freezing individual bank accounts and denying visas for the leaders,” Ping told us. “If you sanction the whole country, the people will suffer. If you stop giving subsidies to universities, the university will suffer, not Bongo. We want to punish those who have committed crimes, those who have cheated and killed.”
Bongo’s father ruled Gabon from 1967 until his death in 2009. Yet as one African country after another won independence and gradually moved toward democracy, Gabon remained a one-party state.
“All these countries were dictatorships,” he said. “In 1990, when the Berlin Wall fell, countries like Ghana and Botswana became multi-party democracies. But Gabon stayed the same,” he said. “We don’t want to compare Gabon to other countries or have problems with our neighbors. But we want Gabon to become a modern country. Gabon is very rich, yet the people are very poor.”
Ping estimated Gabon’s annual per-capita GDP at $6,000 to $7,000 — which would make it one of Africa’s wealthiest nations — yet simply dividing revenue by population is deeply misleading.
“During the seven years of Bongo’s rule, the price of oil went up nearly five-fold, from $25 to $110. So you can imagine all the money that flowed into the country. In spite of that, our people continued to be among the poorest in the world,” he complained. “Even Equatorial Guinea has highways everywhere. We don’t have a single highway in Gabon.”
Ping added: “They were stealing the money and building nonsense, like marinas everywhere. What is the sense in this? They want to build a small Dubai instead of taking care of health, education and basic infrastructure like electricity.”
Ping, the son of a Chinese immigrant father and a Gabonese mother, said that if he were president, he would act immediately to shift the economy away from its dependence on oil.
“Nothing has been done to diversify the economy from oil. I think it’s fundamental to diversify, mainly with agriculture. One hundred percent of Gabon is arable land, yet we import 80 percent of our food. An emphasis should be made to feed people, not export food and not to continue with palm trees and rubber.”
It’s doubtful the Bongo regime will concede power to Ping. It’s also doubtful Ping will give up the struggle anytime soon.
Asked what he thought of protests over Donald Trump on the eve of the 45th president’s inauguration, Ping said “it’s not up to me to interfere with internal affairs, but what I notice is that here, democracy works.”