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Sep 22, 2016 | Africa

Gabon on edge as presidential rivals to face off in court

By Samir Tounsi
Gabon's opposition leader Jean Ping challenged the August presidential vote as fraudulent and demanded a recount.  By Steve Jordan (AFP/File)
Gabon's opposition leader Jean Ping challenged the August presidential vote as fraudulent and demanded a recount. By Steve Jordan (AFP/File)

Libreville (AFP) - Security forces fanned out in Gabon's capital Thursday as the west African country remained on edge awaiting the constitutional court's decision to end its post-election crisis and the uncertainty over who will be the next president.

Lawyers for incumbent President Ali Bongo and his rival Jean Ping were to appear at the court's first hearing in Libreville Thursday on the highly-disputed poll.

It is down to the wire as the expiry of a 15-day deadline for the Constitutional Court to resolve electoral disputes is Friday, and the court is expected to announce its ruling that day or on Saturday.

The small nation of 1.8 million people has been traumatised by the violent protests that erupted after Bongo was declared the winner of the August 27 election by a wafer-thin margin of less than 6,000 votes.

The opposition charged that the vote was fraudulent and on September 8, Ping, an internationally-respected diplomat who himself claimed victory, filed a legal challenge, demanding a recount.

"The (election) observers will present their report. Then the lawyers from both sides will speak for around 10 minutes," Ping's lawyer Jean Remy Bantsantsa told AFP. Bongo's lawyer Francis Nkea was not immediately available for comment.

In his legal challenge, Ping asked for a recount in Haut-Ogooue province, a stronghold of the Bongo family who have ruled Gabon since 1967. Ali Bongo won more than 95 percent of votes there on a reported turnout of more than 99 percent.

Following the poll, EU election observers said there had been a "clear anomaly" in the final results from Haut-Ogooue.

Heading off unrest

With suspense hanging over the court's deliberations, security forces in anti-riot gear were deployed around the capital Libreville Thursday preparing to head off any more unrest should the judges decide against Ping.

Gabon's election controversy Gabon's election controversy

Gabonese ministers, who have vowed to maintain order, warned the 73-year-old former head of the African Union Commission that his actions could be held responsible if new violent protests break out.

Ping's supporters say "more than 50" people were killed in the wave of post-electoral violence, but the interior ministry says the toll is three dead.

In the shops, the Gabonese stood in long queues to buy provisions to last through the weekend should the streets be manned with checkpoints.

On Tuesday, lawyers for the two sides said they had agreed to a recount although they disagreed over the scope of it.

Ping has made clear he believes Bongo has the court in his pocket, referring to it as "the Tower of Pisa that always leans the same way".

On Thursday Ping's entourage accused the court and its president Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo of already being guilty of a "miscarriage of justice", citing an interview with a weekly.

"I have to say that it is rare that the choice of reversal (of the vote results) is used," she told the weekly Jeune Afrique on September 15 -- a statement that infuriated the pro-Ping supporters.

Mborantsuo, a former beauty queen from Haut-Ogooue, caught the attention of the late leader Omar Bongo and was named to the country's top court when she was only 28.

She had an affair with him and bore him two children.

According to the opposition and the Gabonese media, she has amassed a formidable real estate portfolio at home and abroad.

"Nobody want to be in Mborantsuo's shoes," said a diplomatic source. "She is under enormous pressure from both camps."

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