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.
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.