Why Tolerate Rigged Elections in Gabon?

Election fraud and supression of opponents taunt US policy of supporting democratization

ONLY a month after it began its broadcasts, the independent Radio Frequence Libre in the Central African nation of Gabon was stormed by masked troops who poured acid over the station's equipment. Radio Liberte, the only remaining opposition station, was not destroyed, but its signals are being jammed by the authoritarian government of President El Hadj Omar Bongo.

These actions come in the wake of the strongman declaring victory in the Dec. 5, 1993, elections amid well-founded accusations of electoral fraud.

Since the Clinton administration entered office, United States government officials have debated the parameters of its pro-democratization policy; expectations have risen the world over that this rhetoric would soon become reality. However, dictators around the world will rest somewhat easier knowing that the free world stood idly by as President Bongo flaunted his disrespect for democracy and the electoral process.

The presidential contest in Gabon was riddled with irregularities. Bongo laid claim to a mandate, citing support of 51.1 percent of the popular vote. The American observer team - a 17-member delegation sponsored by the New York-based African-American Institute and funded by US tax dollars - later announced a different analysis.

Polling day, beginning at 8 a.m. in some places and at 4 p.m. in others, was not even good theater. According to a report from the AAI, the counting of results was an even greater debacle: ``The [AAI observer] delegation unanimously insists that the arbitrary and ad hoc manner in which the election was administered provided multiple opportunities for the process to be manipulated in a fraudulent manner.''

AAI observers ``witnessed varied, arbitrary, and selective acceptance of identification'' for voting, the report said. Significantly, in opposition strongholds, the AAI noted that many people were barred from voting by stringent adherence to incomplete electoral lists it describes as ``worthless.''

Now, with a five-year extension to his 26-year regime in hand, Bongo again is forcibly silencing critics and warning opponents that even nonviolent rejection of his reelection is equal to insurrection.

In spite of these events, the world community is meekly accepting the continuation by fraud of one of the world's great kleptocracies.

Government troops subdued by gunfire disturbances that were set off in Gabon's capital, Libreville, by the apparent electoral fraud. Even a public statement by a Bongo-appointed provincial governor, Pauline Nyingone, detailing the regime's fraud was shrugged off by the ``reelected'' president and ignored by the international community.

Governor Nyingone has been dismissed from office and is appealing for international protection following threats against her life.

There are other signs that repression is resuming: In the early hours of Friday, Dec. 17, a group of uniformed and masked men raided the Libreville premises of one of Gabon's two opposition radio stations, Frequence Libre. Guards were gassed and bound, and broadcasting equipment was destroyed. The other opposition station, Radio Liberte, is again being jammed, as it was for several months earlier this year.

Gabon, which will export $1 billion worth of oil to the US alone this year, should be a showcase for African development. Yet despite its wealth, it ranks last on the United Nations human development index. The Gabonese people want change. Many went to the polls Dec. 5 with faith in the electoral process and with the belief that the Clinton administration's proclaimed commitment to democratization and the presence of American observers would make their votes real.

Sadly, in spite of the US's commitment to democratization and the presence of observers, free and fair elections did not take place. A regime that has paupered and violently suppressed its people may stay on. Some may argue that Gabon is not big enough or important enough to qualify for ``democratic enlargement.'' However, a continued lack of attention from Washington will contribute to the shrinking of democracy.

President Clinton should endorse a protest lodged by the Committee to Protect Journalists, putting all of Africa on notice that this administration will not submerge its promise of promoting democracy. In addition, the president must make it known that the US will not recongnize any Bongo-led government in Libreville unless Bongo can prove that the detailed allegations of wrongdoing are false. Barring such proof, the US should call for new elections.

With the end of the cold war, the US need not continue to countenance petty dictators. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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