Tension eased in Gabon’s capital on Saturday after days of deadly rioting triggered by an announcement that President Ali Bongo narrowly won re-election in a vote the opposition said was stolen.
More than a thousand people were arrested in the protests that began on Wednesday and the opposition, led by Jean Ping who claims he is now president, said five people also died.
Shops began to re-open on Saturday and some traffic returned to the streets as government sought to restore stability with mass arrests and a heavy security presence.
At the same time some impoverished residents of Libreville who need to buy food every day said they hoped for a return to normality given the hardship caused by closed shops and markets.
“The last few days were really difficult for us. The fact that traffic has started to move is important … because our families have really suffered,” said Alex Ndong (42) a mechanic who lives in the Lalala suburb of south Libreville.
“I hope everything goes back to normal as quickly as possible,” he said.
Bongo came to power in 2009 on the death of his father, Omar, who ruled the Central African country for 42 years, relying on patronage fuelled by oil wealth to buy off dissent.
France has had a military base in Gabon since independence in 1960 and 450 troops are stationed there, according to the French Defence Ministry.
The disputed election sparked protests but discontent has risen in an economy hit by lower global prices for its crude exports and falling production. Major oil producers include Total and Shell.
Many citizens also say the fruits of oil wealth have been shared too narrowly.
APPEAL BY PING
Ping appealed to the American people in an op-ed in the New York Times to send a clear signal to Bongo that they would not tolerate a stolen election.
He also repeated a call taken up by the European Union for the electoral commission to release results bureau by bureau to make it easier to detect potential discrepancies.
“The people of Gabon voted for their leader, they chose me. They chose a change from the dynastic regime that has ruled our country since 1967,” Ping wrote.
He earlier called for international intervention but there were few signs by Saturday of the kind of decisive external action Ping seeks.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault appealed to all sides in the dispute to use constitutional means and called on the authorities to restore all social media and Internet connections after days of interruptions and cuts.
In several recent African elections the Internet and sometimes cellular phone services have been suspended. Ayrault also welcomed a decision by the African Union to get involved.
The African Union’s Peace and Security Council expressed concern over the violence, saying the situation could affect regional stability.
In a statement, the Council “called on all Gabonese stakeholders to demonstrate utmost restraint and make use of all available legal and constitutional channels to resolve any differences pertaining to the results of the elections.”
Gabon’s law society said on Saturday 800 people were detained in the capital and 300 arrested elsewhere. It called on authorities to respect human rights and treat those who have been detained fairly