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Key findings
  • In September-October 2015, two-thirds (65%) of Gabonese saw the country as heading in the wrong direction (Figure 1). Concern with the direction of the country was highest in Woleu-Ntem (85%) and Ogooué-Maritime (71%), but even in Haut-Ogooué, 43% said the country was heading in the wrong direction.
  • Six in 10 Gabonese said they did not trust the incumbent president “at all” (31%) or trusted him “just a little” (30%) (Figure 2). Although trust levels were higher in his home province, 38% of Haut-Ogooué residents expressed little or no trust in Bongo.
  • A majority (54%) of Gabonese said they “disapprove” or “strongly disapprove” of Bongo’s performance in office (Figure 3). Disapproval ranged up to 70% in Woleu-Ntem (Figure 4). In contrast, eight in 10 Haut-Ogooué residents (80%) said the president was doing a good job. Bongo’s approval rating was the seventh-worst among presidents of 34 African countries surveyed on this question (Figure 5).
  • Only 39% of Gabonese (including 45% of Haut-Ogooué residents) reported having voted in the previous national election in 2011 (Figure 6). That was a parliamentary (not a presidential) election and was boycotted by the opposition – factors that would likely contribute to a low voter turnout. Official turnout in 2011 was 34%. By comparison, official turnout for the 2009 presidential election was 44%. In the 2016 election, official voter turnout was announced as 59.5%, including 99.9% (revised to 98% by the Constitutional Court) in Haut-Ogooué.
  • Trust in the national election commission was very low: Three-fourths of Gabonese said they trusted CENAP “not at all” (50%) or just a little (24%) (Figure 8). Levels of distrust were high in all of Gabon’s provinces, including Haut-Ogooué (61%).

According to Gabon’s national electoral commission and a subsequent Constitutional Court ruling, incumbent President Ali Bongo won re-election in August against challenger Jean Ping. His razor-thin and disputed victory margin relies in part on extraordinarily strong support and high voter turnout in the president’s home province, Haut-Ogooué. The officially announced results prompted protests in which several people died and many were arrested. They continue to be widely questioned by the opposition and international observers amid fears that failing to address election-quality concerns that have festered since the previous presidential election in 2009 could lead to further instability.

As partisans on both sides debate how likely or believable they find the official election results, one source of comparative data is Afrobarometer’s nationally representative survey in Gabon. This survey was conducted in September-October 2015 – almost a year before the election – and views can certainly change over time. Still, survey findings offer insights into the perceptions of Gabonese citizens – including those in Haut-Ogooué – and highlight the critical importance of addressing public doubts about the trustworthiness of their electoral bodies and processes. As the African Union and the international community assess Gabon’s compliance as a signatory to the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, the Afrobarometer results can contribute to an understanding of the evolving situation.

At the time of the survey, public trust in President Bongo and public approval of his job performance were high in Haut-Ogooué but low across the rest of the country. Voter turnout in previous national elections was far lower than turnout reported for the 2016 contest. More broadly, Gabonese citizens – including those in Haut-Ogooué – voiced strong distrust of the Commission Electorale Nationale Autonome et Permanente (CENAP), doubts about the expected fairness of the vote count, low levels of trust in the courts and security forces, and dissatisfaction with the way democracy works in Gabon.

In addition to immediate fears of potential unrest, the crisis in Gabon reflects deep public concerns about the fairness of election processes, the trustworthiness of state institutions, and the ability of Gabon’s democracy to respect the will of the people.

Peter Halley Penar

Peter Halley Penar is a research assistant for Afrobarometer and a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University.