Recently, I assisted a friend of mine with his application for a visa to Gabon.
During the process, I did a fair amount of research on the political economy of Gabon, which, it turns out, is one of the most prosperous countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
It is also one of the few African countries that requires Zimbabweans to apply for visas before entry.
Here are some interesting statistics about Gabon.
Gabon became fully independent from France on 15 July 1960. It is a small sparsely populated country with a population of 1.7 million people with a surface area of 268,000 square kilometers with forests covering 85% of the territory.
Gabon is an upper-middle-income country. It is the fifth largest oil producer in Africa, and it has experienced strong economic growth over the past decade, driven by oil and manganese production.
Gabon enjoys a per capita income four times higher than most sub-Saharan African nations, but because of high income inequality, a large proportion of the population remains poor. Nevertheless, Gabon has a per capita income of approximately USD$3,000 which is high by African standards
It also has a GDP of $14.47 billion, and 28% unemployment. It exports about $5.078 billion worth of goods per annum and imports about $3.224 billion worth of goods per annum.
It is ostensibly a well-managed and stable economy.
However, more interesting than anything else are the politics of Gabon, where Omar Bongo ruled since 1967 until his death on 7 May 2009. He ruled Gabon for 42 years.
Similar to other countries that have had long-time leaders (including Zimbabwe which was led by Robert Mugabe for 37 years) Omar Bongo’s critics describe his rule as characterized by autocracy, corruption and nepotism.
Critics also say that Omar Bongo mastered the extraordinary ability to sideline his rivals and ensure that no competitor, either individually or institutionally, could construct a power base to challenge him during his reign.
Nevertheless, after he passed on, Gabon regressed from 42 years of relative stability to instability.
He was succeeded by his son, Ali Bongo who narrowly won the disputed elections of 2009, and in 2016 he won the election by a slight majority of 50.66% of the vote against 47.24% of the vote which was garnered by his rival Jean Ping.
Ironically, Ali Bongo’s narrow victory in 2016 saw him delaying parliamentary elections in his country due to an alleged “shortage of funds.”
This is interesting, because Gabon is considered to be one of the top ten richest countries in Africa, alongside Seychelles, South Africa, Botswana and Mauritius.
What can ZANU-PF and MDC-T learn from Gabon?
Clearly, after the 42-year reign of Omar Bongo came to an end, the stability of Gabon and Bongo’s Gabonese Democratic Party (GDP) were affected.
While Omar Bongo was a master tactician who had a unique ability which enabled him to unite his party and co-opt his rivals simultaneously, the slight majority of 50.66% enjoyed by his successor Ali Bongo shows us that the successor of a long-time leader is not always as popular as his predecessor.
In Zimbabwe, a lesson can be drawn here by both the ruling ZANU-PF party and the main opposition MDC-T.
We recently saw Robert Mugabe step down as ZANU-leader and we suffered the death of Morgan Tsvangirai who had led the MDC-T for 18 years.
Now with Zimbabwe’s harmonized elections expected in July 2018, the sentiment on the ground is that Emmerson Mnangagwa is not as popular as Robert Mugabe was in ZANU-PF, and that Nelson Chamisa is not as popular as Dr. Morgan Tsvangirai was in the MDC-T.
In ZANU-PF it was actually the former first lady Grace Mugabe who was grossly unpopular among party members, and she is largely blamed for catalysing the events that led to the former president’s fall from power in November 2017.
Nevertheless, events around the primary elections in both ZANU-PF and the MDC-T show that there are serious fault lines within Zimbabwe’s two main political platforms.
For instance, after initially losing the ZANU-PF primary election for the Norton constituency, Chris Mutsvangwa (who is adviser to the Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa) apparently declared that “It is inconceivable that the President will win [the 2018 election}.”
Furthermore, the incumbent Norton legislator Themba Mliswa publicly stated that for ZANU-PF the 2018 election will be characterized by “bhora musango”, that is, protest votes and electoral apathy among the party supporters.
It goes without saying that in 2008, ZANU-PF’s presidential candidate Robert Mugabe lost the first round of the vote to his MDC-T rival Morgan Tsvangirai owing to “bhora-musango,”
The consequent 2008 run-off was characterized by intimidation and violence and its outcome was internationally disputed and ultimately this led to the formation of a Government of National Unity (GNU) comprising of both ZANU-PF and MDC-T leaders in 2009.
As is it stands today, ZANU-PF’s primary elections have been characterized by low voter turnout, disunity, and accusations and counter-accusations of factionalism. These are early signs of “bhora-musango.”
In this light it seems highly improbable that ZANU-PF will win the 61% it achieved at presidential level in 2013, or the two-thirds majority it achieved at parliamentary level in the same year.
More likely than not, the 2018 Zimbabwean election will see President Mnangagwa win by a slight majority similar to Gabonese president’s Ali Bongo’s 2016 slight majority of 50.66%.
There is also something else of particular importance.
If ZANU-PF fails to retain its two-thirds majority in 2018, this will complicate its legislative agenda going forward, as the party will not have the quorum to amend the constitution, essentially meaning that post 2018 elections, ZANU-PF will have less power than it did when it was voted into power in 2013.
This is a notable fact, given that as of 2023, constitutionally, the two vice-presidents of the country will no longer be appointed, but will have to be elected as presidential running mates.
Consequently, this means that failing to win a two-thirds parliamentary majority will complicate post-2018 politics for ZANU-PF for two reasons.
Firstly, it is more likely than not that come 2023, the Zimbabwean diaspora (comprising approximately four million people) will vote in that election.
This will adversely affect ZANU-PF because under the current circumstances, ZANU-PF will not win the two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2018 that it needs to amend the constitution in order to prevent the diaspora from voting in 2023, or to change the clause that stipulates Vice Presidents will be elected and not appointed as of 2023.
Secondly, in 2018, about 65% of Zimbabwe’s voters are below forty years old, and youthful voters often (not always) support youthful leaders. Come 2023, approximately 75% of voters will be below forty, further complicating things for ZANU-PF which has an average age of 66 among its top five leaders.
The situation is no better in the MDC-T which split after the death of Dr. Tsvangirai into a faction led by Nelson Chamisa and another led by Thokazane Khupe. Up to date, the two factions are battling in court over which is the legitimate MDC-T and who is the legitimate leader of the MDC-T.
Also, recently Jesse Majome- a well-respected lawyer and MDC-T legislator for Harare West- has chosen to run for Harare West constituency as an independent candidate citing irregularities in the MDC-T’s primary election procedures.
As a result, it is clear that like ZANU-PF, the MDC-T is much more divided, and factionalized in 2018 than it was in the 2013 elections.
The Prospect of a Government of national Unity post 2018 election
Wherever they occur, elections should be free fair and credible so as to show the world that whoever seizes power post-elections has the unanimous mandate of the people to govern the country as its legitimate leader.
It is no surprise then, that after achieving a controversial and slight majority of 50.66% in the 2016 election, Gabonese President Ali Bongo delayed parliamentary elections.
Clearly, he is aware his slight majority demonstrates that the nation is deeply divided.
Accordingly, since 2016 he has avoided parliamentary elections, and has instead chosen to appoint Emmanuel Issoze Ngondet as the prime minister of Gabon, and has tasked him to form a Government of National Unity comprising members of opposition parties in key posts.
Perhaps this is a viable option for Zimbabwe post-2018 elections, especially given the that president Emmerson Mnangagwa is likely to win the presidency, but only by a slight majority.
Also, ZANU-PF is unlikely to win a two-thirds majority at parliamentary level.
As a result, in order to substantially gain the trust of Zimbabweans and international investors alike, it will take ZANU-PF and the MDC-T to come together and share power for a period of time, in the same way that they did during the 2009-2013 Government of National Unity.
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