Libreville, Gabon – The banquet at the presidential palace was a formal affair. Men in suits sat on the edges of their seats, holding up their mobile phones as they stretched to get a picture of the man they simply call “Ali”.
Surrounded by his family and hundreds of dignitaries, Ali Bongo was being sworn in as the new president of Gabon.
As canons were fired from the palace in Gabon’s capital, Libreville, the privileged guests scrolled and pressed on their phones, quickly pausing to choose the right emoji to go with the picture of this historic moment.
On that day, Gabon’s social media blackout did not apply to the presidential palace. It has been almost a month since text messaging services and social media were blocked, with a daily internet shutdown from 6am to 6pm.
But since Wednesday, Gabon has been back online – and has a new president.
Outside, yellow posters were still hanging on the walls showing an old man smiling. “Vote Jean Ping” can be read beneath.
Opposition leader Ping still believes he should have been the one standing on the podium and sworn in as president.
When the elections results were first made public, thousands were arrested, hundreds injured and scores killed, according to the opposition, in riots when protesters stormed the parliament building and burned it to the ground in protest.
Ping appealed at the Constitutional Court after accusing Bongo of cheating. It was a tight race with just 6,000 votes separating the two men.
For two weeks, Gabon held its breath waiting for a ruling. Until the last moment, the Ping camp was hopeful but the court decision came in the middle of the night, as the country was fast asleep. The court ruled in Bongo’s favour, extending the margin by 11,000 votes.
The following morning, residents in Libreville woke up to a city under siege.
Paramilitary forces, the army and other security forces had set up road blocks. Armoured personal vehicles were patrolling the streets. Shops were closed down. Fighter jets flew low over the capital.
All of this force to ensure the opposition would accept the court’s ruling. It felt like a military coup was under way.
That morning we went to meet Ping. For almost a week, he refused to speak to the media. We kept bumping into him but he kept mum, shuffling around his house meeting party leaders.
Ping is a jovial but elusive character. With us he would always joke. He has an infectious laugh, even in the moments you least expect, like the morning after the verdict – as if he was unaware of the seriousness of the situation.
Above his house, helicopters and commercial drones flew low. It felt intimidating.
He’s called on the support of the international community – and France, the former colonial power.
France has a military base in Gabon with 300 soldiers. Historically, the French have always meddled in Gabon’s affairs.
The French oil company Total also extracts billions of dollars worth of oil every year. Earlier in 2016, Bongo’s government ordered a tax audit on Total Gabon, suspicious that it wasn’t paying all its taxes.
Since the price of oil has dropped, Gabon – which is one of Africa’s oil-rich countries – has struggled to keep the balance sheets. Bongo fired 800 civil servants, while many of the privileges that existed under the 42-year rule of his late father, Omar Bongo, were abolished.
France has always supported the Bongo family partly because of the oil revenues, but also using the Bongo family’s wealth to fund French political campaigns.
At Omar Bongo’s funeral in 2009, all of the French political elite were present.
And when Bongo was announced the winner in August, French political parties were the first to react. The far-right political leader, Jean Marie Le Pen, congratulated Ali Bongo.
The Socialist party called for a review of the votes, while President Francois Hollande’s statement came only days later.
Meanwhile, French soldiers were told to stay in their base and not appear in public – eager to appear not to be meddling in Gabon’s affair.
‘Dallas: A House Divided’
Ping has always been close to the ruling elite. He was Omar Bongo’s cabinet director and chief of the African Union before coming back to Gabon to lead the opposition against the Bongo family rule.
Ping is the son of a Chinese father and Gabonese mother, and educated in France.
When we finally met Ali Bongo, I asked him if he felt betrayed. He said it was to be expected.
We met Bongo at the presidential palace on the eve of his swearing-in ceremony. It was a controlled affair. You could tell from his demeanour that sitting in front of me was a man under tremendous stress, rather then a man enjoying his victory.
Bongo speaks perfect English. The last of Omar Bongo’s sons, he spent time in New York and London in the 1970s recording and composing music.
In the 1990s, he joined his father’s government as defence minister.
The Bongo family is a large one, with many members of the clan fighting over the late president’s estate. In a WikiLeaks cable, the US described the clans infighting as similar to the American TV series Dallas.
After the interview, once the camera were off, we talked about his music – and it’s then that I saw glimpse of the man – not the president.
There was a spark in his eyes. He talked about his musical influences and his compositions. Clearly passionate about music, he even invited us to his recording studio.
He was charming, and didn’t come across as a man wanting to cling to power.’
‘Make Gabon Great Again’
On the streets of the capital, giant blue billboard posters show Bongo sitting on a plastic chair talking to ordinary Gabonese people under a tree. Beneath, in bold, three letters: “A-L-I”.
No mention of his surname, perhaps for fear that it would have negative connotation. His slogan is, “Together we can bring change”.
The PR company behind Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the United States was hired for the Ali campaign, and the similarities with the American presidential race do not stop here.
Ping has asked on numerous occasions for Bongo’s birth certificate, accusing him of being born in a foreign country.
In a book published by a renowned French investigative journalist, the writer alleges that Bongo was adopted in Nigeria and therefore ineligible to run for president.
Ping has relentlessly attacked Bongo personally and has also stoked anti-foreigner sentiments. He has allegedly called foreign workers in Gabon “cockroaches”.
About 12,000 French nationals live in Gabon and many Africans come to the country to work in the oil sector.
At one Ping rally, I heard hundreds of his supporters shouting for foreigners to be thrown out of Gabon.
Yet Ping supporters are counting on France and the European Union to intervene in their favour. One Ping supporter told me he would “cut the throats” of French children going to a French school near Ping’s house if Paris didn’t interfere.
Selfie with the president
At the swearing-in ceremony, France for the first did not send a government representative.
In his speech, Bongo called for dialogue, admitting that the electoral system needs to be reformed. He called for change, saying that this will be a new era for Gabon.
But few outside the palace will believe him.
The inauguration was prepared in haste to try to bring an end to the crisis, but it will take a lot longer to restore trust in the system.
As Bongo was sworn in, I too tried to take a picture. I held my phone up high to capture the moment and get as much in frame as possible but there was just too much to grasp and, too much escaping me.This was more than a man being sworn into power.
But the crisis is not over – and Gabon remains on the edge.