Gabonese Elections: Why Democratic Institutions Do Not Always Mean Democracy

To understand the values that a nation wishes to convey to the world, take a look at its official name. The United States, for example, clearly values unity. So does the United Kingdom. The People’s Republic of China seems to embody the populist spirit of the Communist Party. The name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo indicates an affinity for democracy. The word that comes up most, however, is “republic.”

The world is covered in republics. People’s republics, democratic republics, socialist republics, Islamic republics, and federal republics. The word “republic” comes from the latin word “respublica,” meaning “entity of the people.” With so many republics, then, we must live in a world of democratic utopia. Not so, however. La République Gabonaise is, after all, the official name of Gabon, a small country on the western coast of Africa. An event that occurred on Friday, however, seems to indicate that it is more an entity of the family than an entity of the people.

The location of Gabon within Africa
The location of Gabon within Africa

Last month, the president of Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba, was re-elected. Jean Ping, Mr. Bongo’s opponent, lost by a tiny margin. After it was announced that Ping had lost, his supporters became livid–and for good reason. Mr. Ping had been leading up until the very end, when results for Mr. Bongo’s home province, Haut-Ogooué, were counted. Statistics indicated a 99.9% turnout with 95% of voters in favor of Mr. Bongo. Considering the turnout elsewhere was only 59%, these statistics are unlikely. For this reason, protesters turned out in droves. The national assembly was set ablaze, 5 were killed, and 1000 were arrested.

The protesters also had good reason to protest Bongo’s presidency. He was first elected in 2009 after the death of the country’s previous ruler, Omar Bongo. Omar Bongo had run Gabon since 1967, first under a single-party state and later after the introduction of multi-party democracy. During Omar Bongo’s tenure, oil was discovered in Gabon. Billions of dollars worth of oil revenue began flowing into the country. It did not flow evenly, however. It went straight to the top, with  the Bongo family and its allies became vastly wealthy through corruption. It is no surprise, then, that Ali Bongo was elected president in 2009. He is Omar Bongo’s son, so he had the support of almost endless funds and a deeply entrenched political establishment.

That brings us to what happened this Friday. As a result of these massive electoral disparities and questionable results, Jean Ping challenged the election in court and called for a recount. The court decided on its verdict this Friday. It decided that there were, in fact, irregularities in the vote. But it did not see a problem with the results of Haut-Ogooué. Instead, it nullified the results in 21 polling stations, giving Mr. Bongo an even larger lead. Why would it make such a decision? Well, courts are supposed to be independent from a country’s administration in order to prevent conflicts of interest. In states like Gabon, however, leaders like Omar Bongo spent decades building autocratic political systems in which the interests of everyone point in the same direction: the maintenance of power by the current elite. Thus the court, whose members can be appointed and dismissed by the president, has been filled with partisans who are loyal to the Bongo government.

But Gabon isn’t exactly an oppressive dictatorship. Unlike in Equatorial Guinea, the oil wealth has improved conditions for many. Unlike in North Korea, it has no cult of personality. Unlike in Eritrea, it has little forced labor. Over the course of the last year, fraudulent elections have occurred in Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, and the Republic of the Congo. Yet unlike in these countries, opposition candidates in Gabon were allowed to campaign freely, there was little voter intimidation, and voter participation was high. Is it unfair, then, to claim that Gabon fails to put the “public” in “republic”?

Despite the fact that Gabon maintains some democratic institutions, such a claim is not unfair. Why? Because the preferences of the people had absolutely no bearing on the results of the election. While Gabon is not a traditional dictatorship that uses heavy-handed tactics to ensure complete concentration of power, it is most definitely a soft dictatorship that cultivates a believable façade of democracy while maintaining power in less sinister ways. This distinction between hard and soft dictatorship is an important one.

Take the comparison of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, for example. Their cultural, economic, and political histories are remarkably similar, resulting in two autocratic political systems. The two countries are located right next to each other on the map. Both were dominated by the Fang and related ethnic groups. Both were colonized by European powers and gained independence in the 1960s. Both discovered valuable oil reserves, resulting in a massive influx of wealth. Both have autocratic leaders who concentrate much of the wealth and power within a tight-knit circle of friends and family. But the path that Gabon has taken is decidedly less sinister.

Equatorial Guinea’s early post-independence history was marked by mass deportations, a country-wide system of forced labor, economic collapse, widespread political assassinations, and a reign of terror by president and his paramilitary organizations. A third of country’s population fled. The elite of Equatorial Guinea, centered on the family of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, maintains power with sweeping oppression. Opposition is harassed to the point where it is practically nonexistent. Thus Obiang handily won recent “elections” with over 90% of the vote. The Gabonese government, on the other hand, has never relied on terror to control its people. In recent decades, a healthy opposition has been allowed to develop. That is why the recent election was so closely contested. But to win the election, all that was required of Bongo was relatively minor manipulation of the results and a loyal court to uphold the fraudulent results. That is the difference between a soft dictatorship and hard dictatorship. In Equatorial Guinea, terror pervades political life and democratic institutions are nonexistent. In Gabon, democratic institutions are allowed but they are simply ineffective in the face of the loyalties that Bongo has built within the government.

Soft dictatorships are certainly not as bad as hard ones. They allow decisive action to be taken without the level of oppression seen elsewhere. The gulf states, for example, have channeled their oil wealth to develop massive prosperity despite a lack of democracy. These kingdoms and emirates, however, are not attempting to paint themselves as something that they’re not. By claiming to derive legitimacy from their people, governments like the one in Gabon are lying to the world. If they truly believe their system of government is more effective than democracy, they should not brand themselves a republic. The world is covered in republics in name only. But make no mistake. The existence of democratic institutions is not all that is required to make a democracy.

South Sudan: When Violence is Necessary, Peace is Nearly Impossible

Over the past few centuries, the world has made vast progress toward achieving higher levels of wealth and stability. As the world as a whole has advanced, however, the disparity between prosperous nations and impoverished nations has grown larger. Why? Because some regions have been left behind. Although the world has improved as a whole, some places have advanced only incrementally–if at all. South Sudan is one of the places that has seen the least improvement. Since its birth as the world’s newest country in 2011, it has been plagued with violence. On Friday, the number of refugees that have fled South Sudan passed one million.

The location of South Sudan within Africa

South Sudan was created as part of a peace plan. It has not, however, brought peace to the people of this war-ravaged part of the world. Since the decolonization of Africa, the region has been devastated by the First Sudanese Civil War, the Second Sudanese Civil War, and the South Sudanese Civil War. The peace deal following the first of these wars achieved autonomy for South Sudan; the peace deal following the second achieved independence; and peace deal following the third has already unravelled. Each war was resolved by a peace deal, but each peace deal failed to address the causes of war: a culture in which it is within the interests of the people and the politicians to remain prepared for war.

The First Sudanese Civil war began immediately before the independence of Sudan. It was driven by conflict between the northern and southern portions of the country. Before independence, the largely Islamic north had been administered separately from the less populous and Christian majority South. As independence neared, it became clear that the two portions of the country would be united under one government. As a result, the less populous and Christian south feared that it would be overwhelmed by the north. For this reason, southern leaders launched an insurgency. Neither the northern government nor the southern separatists could achieve an outright victory, resulting in a stalemate. Eventually, the warring parties signed a peace agreement in 1972 that attempted to solve the conflict with the creation of an autonomous region in the south.

For over a decade, the peace agreement held and Sudan remained relatively stable. In 1983, however, it fell apart. The president of Sudan at the time, Gaafar Nimeiry, declared the entire country an Islamic Republic and abolished the autonomous region. Naturally, the south once again feared marginalization by the north. As a result, it launched the Second Sudanese Civil War. The opposition, however, was fractured throughout the war. At first, it was led by Dr. John Garang, a member of the Dinka ethnic group who established the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and its political arm, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), in 1983. Over time, Garang’s policy of a united but secular Sudan fell out of favor with those advocating for the complete independence of the south. In 1991, a faction led by SPLA commander Riek Machar attempted to overthrow Garang. It failed to replace him, but it created a new militia that became known as the SPLA-Nasir.

As result of the split between the SPLA and the SPLA-Nasir, the Second Sudanese Civil War morphed into something far more complicated than a simple north-south conflict. In order to strengthen its position against Garang, the SPLA-Nasir exploited ethnic divisions. It drew most of its support from the Nuer ethnic group to which Machar belonged. This caused conflict with the Dinka ethnic group, the largest ethnic group the country to which Garang belonged. In 1991, 2000 ethnic Dinka were killed by Nuer forces loyal to the SPLA-Nasir in what came to be known as the Bor Massacre. To complicate matters further, the SPLA allied with anti-government militant groups in the north. At the same time, the fiercely pro-independence SPLA-Nasir somewhat paradoxically entered into strategic alliance with the government in Khartoum. Thus the north-south war had become a nationwide conflict with an opposition that was deeply divided along ethnic lines.

The Second South Sudanese Civil War officially ended in 2005 with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The agreement was meant to end the conflict with South Sudan as well as various other armed conflicts throughout the country. It set a timetable for an independence referendum in South Sudan. This was held in 2011, and the people voted overwhelmingly for independence. As a result, South Sudan became the world’s newest nation on July 9, 2011. It was led by Salva Kiir, a Dinka who succeeded Garang as the leader of the SLPA following the latter’s death. Riek Machar was made the vice president. For a few years, the country was not officially at war. In 2013, however, the facade of stability crumbled. Kiir and Machar turned against each other, plunging the country into the South Sudanese Civil War.

In July of 2013, Kiir dismissed his cabinet and removed Machar from the vice presidency. His moves were criticized by many as an attempt to consolidate his own power. In December of 2013, a group of Nuer soldiers mutinied and took over the headquarters of the military. Kiir accused them of staging a coup attempt led by Machar. The country once again fractured along ethnic lines.  Nuer soldiers across South Sudan rallied to support Machar, while Dinka forces remained loyal to the government. Violence continued until a peace agreement was signed in August 2015. It stipulated that Machar would once again be made vice president. In keeping with the pattern of history, however, the peace deal soon fell apart. Kiir once again reorganized the government to ensure its loyalty, and Machar once again was removed from power and fled the country. While the war officially ended in August 2015, the violence never truly subsided.

Although the South Sudanese Civil War is officially over, much of the country (in green) is still controlled by rebel militias.

Decades of civil war have normalized violence in South Sudan. Its residents have come to fear massacre, and its leaders have become used to working within the framework of rival groups backed by ethnically aligned militias. Decades ago, leaders used ethnic divisions to further their political aims. Now, they cannot achieve their political aims without appealing to these same divisions, and they cannot disarm without losing their leverage. The go-to way to increase one’s power became the establishment of one’s very own ethnocentric militant group. In the face of such widespread violence, the people have two options. They can either arm themselves or flee. Such is the culture that has developed in South Sudan. Violence is necessary for survival, both politically and literally.

Peace in South Sudan demands both political and social reform. As of now, war is within the interest of South Sudan’s leaders and its people. To end the war, reform must be achieved on such a scale that the political interests of the leaders and the interests of the myriad ethnic groups all align with each other and with peace. In the past, the leaders and the people have been conditioned to prepare for the next war in order to ensure their survival. As a result, it is within their interests to remain on war footing. It is only through a drastic reengineering of national interests, then, that the culture of violence will subside. How to achieve these drastic reforms, however, is as unclear to me as it has been to the architects of the numerous failed peace attempts of the past. That’s why, despite the fact that the Sudanese Civil War, Second Sudanese Civil War, and South Sudanese Civil War have all officially ended, refugee numbers are still rising. That’s why there are over one million refugees.


No Iranians in Mecca: A Boycott and the Balance of Power

This Friday marked the beginning of the Hajj. Every Muslim must live in accordance with five essential pillars, and The Hajj–one of these pillars–stipulates that every Muslim must make a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia at least once in their life as long as they are able to do so. Thus millions of Muslims from dozens of sects and countries converge on Mecca each year to fulfill the Hajj. This year, however, there will be a significant absence. There will not be any Iranians in Mecca.

If we look into the past to find why exactly Iran is boycotting the Hajj this year, there a few different dates that could be pointed out. Many would agree that the conflict began on January 2, 2016. Others would point to September 24, 2015. Others would go further back and single out February 11, 1979. Still more would go even further to June 8, 632. Most would agree, however, that his year’s Hajj has become the latest flashpoint in the increasingly tense cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

On September 24, 2015, a catastrophe rocked Mecca. Around 2,400 pilgrims were crushed to death in a stampede during The Hajj. Over 400 of those were from Iran. As a result, the Iranian government has been harshly critical of Saudi authorities. It has accused them of being unable to successfully administer The Hajj and protect foreign citizens. For this reason, it has barred its citizens from participating this year. Iranians were not the only foreign citizens who perished, however. Why, then, has Iran been more critical of Saudi authorities than other countries? Well, there some political reasons. Or religious ones, depending on who you ask.

On January 2, 2016, the Saudi government executed a Shia cleric by the name of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. He was accused of inciting violence by the Sunni Saudi government, although most foreign observers believe his execution was merely a means to silence criticism. After al-Nimr, who was very popular in Shia Iran, was executed, Iranian protesters broke into the Saudi embassy in Tehran. As a result, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran. Thus it was in this state of heightened political tensions following the execution of al-Nimr that Iran has decided to bar its citizens from attending The Hajj.

Like Saudi Arabia, the United States also broke ties with Iran following an incident at their Tehran embassy. While the similarities shared by these two events may seem coincidental, they are, in fact, related. This is because the root of the political tensions that were inflamed by the execution of al-Nimr can actually be found even further back in history on February 11, 1979. It was on this day that Iran overthrew its monarchy and established an Islamic republic. Before 1979, Iran was like Saudi Arabia and the gulf states in that it was controlled by a pro-western monarchy. Revolutionaries derided this status quo, claiming the the Shah–the king of Iran–was a puppet of the west who was allowing the country to be contaminated by western culture. It is natural, then, that Saudi Arabia’s western-backed monarchy would feel threatened by this anti-monarchial and anti-western way of thinking. When this way of thinking came to power in Iran through the revolution, it legitimized an alternative to the Saudi model of government. As a result, a political rivalry was born.

Some, however, would argue that the roots of the Iran-Saudi Arabia go back even further. Back to June 8, 632. It was on this day that the prophet Muhammad–the founder if Islam–passed away. His death raised the question of who would succeed him as the religious and political leader of the Islamic world. Some supported Abu Bakr, who was one of Muhammad’s closest friends and confidants. Others believe that Ali, Muhammad’s cousin, was chosen by Muhammad as his rightful successor. This disagreement resulted in the first split of the Islamic world into its two major sects. Supporters of Abu Bakr eventually came to be known as Sunnis, and the supporters of Ali came to know be known as Shias. Iran is the most powerful Shia country while Saudi Arabia is the most powerful Sunni one. Because of this, many view the rivalry between the two countries as a continuation of the religious differences that have divided them for centuries.

Do we have our answer, then? Is Iran boycotting The Hajj this year because Muhammad’s death resulted in a succession crisis in 632? Well, it isn’t that simple. Whenever a conflict arises in the Middle East, the split between the Sunnis and Shias is often cited as its root cause. Despite its convenience, however, we should be wary of using this centuries-old religious conflict as a scapegoat. In reality, it is the power dynamic between the two countries that has resulted in Iran’s decision to boycott The Hajj.

Like the United States and the Soviet Union, Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a cold war. Just as those two countries emerged as the two global superpowers following the Second Word War, Iran and Saudi Arabia have emerged as the two most powerful countries in the Middle East, and each threatens the other. The Kings of Saudi Arabia fear a revolution like that which toppled the monarchy in Iran, and the mullahs of Iran fear a popular rejection of their anti-western ideology in the face of Saudi Arabia’s vast wealth and prosperity. By bolstering their own power and attacking the power of the other, the two countries are attempting to prove the legitimacy of their own model of government so that it will not be replaced by the other’s. The boycott of the Hajj is merely an attempt by Iran to delegitimize the Saudi government, and the prescence of religious conflict merely offers a way for each government to justify their conflict.

While the United States and Soviet Union may have justified their conflict with airy proclamations of protecting “freedom” from “tyranny” and protecting “the proletariat” from “the bourgeoisie,” what the leaders of both countries really wanted, whether consciously or subconsciously, was to guarantee prosperity for themselves. It is for this reason that they worked perfectly well together when united against the common threat of nazism and only turned against each other once both had developed a nuclear weapon.

In the same way, the leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia are using religious conflict to justify their political rivalry. The esoteric religious divisions between the Sunnis and Shias are not enough, in and of themselves, to cause conflict. It is the instinct of self-preservation among the leaders of the two countries that will keep the Shia-Sunni conflict alive, it is this instinct of self-preservation that will keep Iran and Saudi Arabia from working together until the interests of their leaders align, and it is the very same instinct of self-preservation that will keep Iranians out of Mecca this year.

From South America to Africa to Asia: Insight From Political Change

All across the world, this week has been a tumultuous one. Presidents have been toppled in two countries, and protesters have taken to the streets to demand the same in three others. From South America to Africa to Asia, leaders are struggling to hold back some of the most fundamental forces of political change–partisanship, popular disapproval, and death. The countries in which these political changes occur paint a telling picture of how these fundamental forces work.


After barely holding on to her presidency in a narrow re-election victory in 2014, Dilma Rousseff has finally been forced out of the Planalto. While she was suspended back in May, she was officially impeached this week as The Senate decided 61-20 that she was guilty of breaking budgetary laws. Towards the end of her presidency, Ms. Rousseff became massively unpopular as she weathered an sweeping corruption scandal and increasingly poor economic conditions. Considering the widespread dissatisfaction with her presidency, widespread relief seems to be an expected result of impeachment.

The truth, however, is more complicated. While many of Ms. Rousseff’s opponents support the impeachment, many Brazilians feel that it was simply a partisan political move. They feel that Ms. Rousseff’s successor, Michel Temer, will be equally corrupt but will not face the same level of judicial inquiry. Many who opposed Ms. Rousseff’s presidency nevertheless believe that the impeachment is an affront to the democratic will of the people. Thus opinion is starkly divided over the matter.


Like Brazil, Uzbekistan lost a president this week. Unlike in Brazil, however, the former president of Uzbekistan did not succumb to political forces. Instead, he succumbed to his own old age. Islam Karimov, who had ruled the repressive central Asian nation with an iron fist since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, died this week after suffering a stroke. Karimov, who was 78 when he died, leaves a mixed legacy. While he has been praised for his harsh stance against Islamist extremists, his government has been condemned for its authoritarianism, disrespect of civil liberties, its violent criminal justice system, and its support of forced-labor in the cotton industry.

With 30 million people, Uzbekistan is the most populous central Asian nation. After today, however, its future is uncertain. Mr. Karimov did not leave any clear successor. The most likely contender is Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev. This is, however, the first change in leadership in Uzbekistan’s history. The current situation has no precedent, and as a result the future is uncertain.


Following the re-election of its president, Ali Bongo, the central-African country of Gabon has been marred by violent protests. Mr. Bongo was elected in 2009 after the death of the country’s previous ruler and Mr. Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo. Omar Bongo had run Gabon since 1967, first under a single-party state and later after the introduction of multi-party democracy. When Ali Bongo succeeded his father, Gabon was rocked by protests similar to the ones that occurred this week. This time around, however, the protesters may have an even stronger case in their favor.

Jean Ping, Mr. Bongo’s opponent, lost by a tiny margin. After it was announced that he had lost, his supporters became livid–and for good reason. Mr. Ping had been leading up until the very end, when results for Mr. Bongo’s home province were counted. Statistics indicated a 99.9% turnout with 95% of voters in favor of Mr. Bongo. Considering the turnout elsewhere was only 59%, these statistics are unlikely. For this reason, protesters turned out in droves. The national assembly was set ablaze, 5 were killed, and 1000 were arrested. With billions of dollars in oil revenue spread extremely unevenly among Gabon’s small population, the people are right to be angry. While it is unlikely that they will unseat Mr. Bongo today, the tide may soon turn.


Venezuela, like Gabon, has enough oil to make its people vastly wealthy. But also like in Gabon, the people are suffering under extreme economic distress. The brand of socialism espoused by Nicolás Maduro, who has been president ever since Hugo Chavez passed away in 2013, has wreaked havoc on the Venezuelan economy. Price controls have caused a massive shortage of important goods. People are forced to wait in line for hours to buy food, and they are often met with empty shelves. For that reason, the Maduro government has grown less and less popular.

This unpopularity was clear last December, when the opposition won a majority in the legislature. One of its first acts was to call a referendum in order to hold new presidential elections. Maduro’s officials, however, have been accused of deliberately delaying the process. That’s why so many Venezuelans have taken to the streets. In fact, almost one million protesters marched in opposition to Maduro. Thus Maduro is struggling to maintain his place of power amid widespread populist disapproval.


In Brazil and Uzbekistan, leaders have fallen–one died a political death and the other a literal one. In Gabon and Venezuela, deeply unpopular leaders are struggling to hold onto power in the face of massive discontent. These political events offer significant insight into the current state of the world. We see leaders facing political threats, populist threats, and threats to their health. But if we look closer, we see something more.

Brazil is a democracy. Venezuela and Gabon have a mixture of democratic institutions and authoritarian ones. Uzbekistan is a full blown dictatorship. It just so happens that the threats facing leaders around are closely connected to the types of government under which those leaders operate. In democracies like Brazil, it is not uncommon for leaders to be unseated by a change in the political tide. In Gabon and Venezuela, however, leaders have entrenched themselves enough that the will of the people is not enough to remove them from office. Leaders can rig elections, so people have no choice but to take to the streets. In Uzbekistan, people do not even take to the streets. Repression is so severe that they are either to uneducated or too scared to resist. Thus political transitions either come as a result of a coup d’état or the death of a leader.

Clearly, the events of this week are not surprising considering the political environments in which they occurred. Politicians in democracies die at the hand of legislature or the ballot box, politicians in hybrid regimes die at the hand of populist uprisings and revolutions, and politicians in dictatorships die at the hand of death itself.