Gabon cut internet access and announced a nightly curfew as voting drew to a close Saturday, and opposition leader Albert Ondo Ossa denounced “fraud” in his battle for the presidency against incumbent Ali Bongo Ondimba.
Bongo and Ondo Ossa lead a race of 14 candidates vying for the top job in the oil-rich central African state.
But shortly after casting his vote, Ondo Ossa went live on a social media broadcast calling on Bongo to step down and saying he could “guarantee” his security.
Barely two hours later, the internet was cut and Communications Minister Rodrigue Mboumba Bissawou went on state television to announce the cutting of the internet and a nightly 7:00 pm – 6:00 am curfew from Sunday.
These actions were to “counter the spread of calls for violence… and false information”, he said. In addition, three days notice will be required for any meeting or demonstration.
State television also announced that some voting stations were staying open later than planned because their opening had been held up by the delay in voting materials arriving.
The country’s broadcasting authority, the HAC, provisionally banned the French channels France 24, Radio France Internationale (RFI) and TV5Monde from the airwaves, state television also reported.
The HAC accused them of “a lack of objectivity and balance” in their election coverage.
– Opposition anger –
Earlier Saturday, the opposition had accused the Bongo government of deliberately creating a disorganised election.
And hours before the internet was cut, as Onda Ossa left a polling station after casting his vote, he went live on social media to denounce “the fraud orchestrated by Ali Bongo and his supporters”.
“At the end of the day, Albert Ondo Ossa must be declared the winner,” he said.
Appealing to the international community, he added: “The moment has come for Ali Bongo to leave. There will be no negotiation. I’m not afraid of him.”
The elections in Gabon — presidential, legislative and municipal — have gone ahead without the presence of election observers.
Paris-based media rights campaigners Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Friday denounced the fact that foreign journalists had been largely restricted from covering the election.
Onda Ossa’s team said earlier Saturday that he was only able to cast his vote after his polling station opened eight hours behind schedule.
Francois Ndong Obiang, president of Alternance 2023, told AFP many others had experienced similar delays and that ballots listing Ondo Ossa’s name were missing in some polling stations.
– ‘Fake news machines’ –
Bongo, the scion of a family that has ruled for 55 years, is seeking victory over a newly united opposition.
The 64-year-old incumbent took office in 2009, succeeding his father Omar, who died after more than 41 years in power.
Onda Ossa — a 69-year-old economics professor who served as a minister under Bongo from 2006 to 2009 — was chosen by the main opposition grouping, Alternance 2023, as its joint candidate just eight days before the election.
Earlier Saturday, an AFP journalist saw dozens of people waiting at voting stations in the centre of Libreville, though most streets were unusually empty for a Saturday.
Ondo Ossa said in a live video on the Facebook page of Alternance 2023 that Bongo had increased the “elements of fraud”.
The Gabon election authorities did not comment when contacted by AFP, but a special advisor to the president said on X, formerly Twitter, that the “fake news machines” were running at “full speed”.
– Conversation controversy –
Shortly ahead of the elections, a storm erupted over a purported conversation between Ondo Ossa and a fellow opposition figure.
The conversation — recorded without the pair’s knowledge and disseminated on social media — refers to various strategies “to create a power struggle” and support from other countries.
Bongo has accused the pair of treason, saying the remarks reflect a plot to take over with the help of “foreign powers”.
Alternance 2023 has strongly denied the “veracity and authenticity of this conversation” and accused the government of “shameful manipulation”.
As well as electing a president Saturday, Gabon’s 850,000 voters were choosing candidates for the legislature and local councils.
Ahead of the ballot, opposition parties denounced a last-minute change to voting rules in the legislative race under which any vote for a local deputy would automatically also be for that deputy’s presidential candidate.
Opposition critics objected that this favoured the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) since Ondo Ossa is not backed by any single party.
– Health problems –
For years, Bongo struggled in the shadow of his charismatic father.
In 2016, he was narrowly re-elected with just 5,500 more votes than his rival, who claimed the election had been fixed.
The announcement of the results sparked violence in the capital Libreville that left five dead, according to the government.
The opposition says 30 people were shot dead by the security forces.
In October 2018, Bongo suffered a stroke that sidelined him for 10 months, stoking claims he was unfit to rule effectively and fuelling an attempted coup.
He returned to work after his convalescence bent on showing himself to be a man of rigour, keen to root out “traitors” and “profiteers” in his inner circle.