Gabon to elect new leader

LIBREVILLE: Gabon goes to the polls Sunday to elect a successor to Africa's longest serving ruler Omar Bongo, whose son appears to be the frontrunner in the oil-rich country's presidential race.

As campaigning wound down Saturday, Ali Bongo, 50, seemed to have a distinct advantage over a divided opposition, with the backing of the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party and a huge campaign war chest.

He told AFP that he was "totally satisfied" with his campaign and confident of the result.

"How could I not be confident?" he asked, pointing to thousands of supporters chanting his name at his final campaign rally.

His opponents, rallying behind the slogan "anyone but Ali", have denounced the corruption and favouritism that is endemic in Gabon, sub-Saharan Africa's fourth biggest oil producer, the world's third biggest provider of manganese and Africa's second biggest wood exporter.

But Ali Bongo has in the course of the two-week campaign called his father's detractors turncoats, banging home the message that the Gabonese people "ate well" and enjoyed stability and prosperity under his four-decade rule.

While other candidates have decried the lack of development in the oil-rich central African nation, where an estimated 60 percent of the population of 1.5 million live below the poverty line, several served in the government for years.

The four heavyweights, former ministers Ali Bongo, Andre Mba Obame and Casimir Oye Mba and radical opposition leader Pierre Mamboundou, have all promised a fairer distribution of Gabon's natural resources.

A total of 23 politicians were originally in the race to succeed Omar Bongo, who died early in June after 41 years in power.

On Friday representatives of five candidates, including former prime minister Jean Eyeghe Ndong and former opposition leader Paul Mba Abessole, told a press conference that they had decided to stand down and support influential former interior minister Mba Obame.

But four contenders including Oye Mba, former minister for mines, oil and hydrocarbons, denied that they had pulled out of the race as alleged by a statement issued by Mba Obame's camp.

The developments sparked confusion, with Communications Minister Laure Olga Gondjout saying at first that the names of those who withdrew would remain on the ballot, before being contradicted by the electoral commission.

Many candidates have questioned the electoral roll, saying 813,164 eligible voters in a country of 1.5 million was way too high and suggesting fraud.

International media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders has complained of restricted access to polling stations for reporters, as well as intimidation and refusal of accreditation for some foreign journalists.

A group of leading intellectuals in Gabon Saturday urged all sides not to resort to violence after the election, pointing to "numerous worrying signals" and warning of "confrontations" in the wake of the vote.

Observers from the African Union, the grouping of francophone countries and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference will monitor the polling, which will take place from 7 am to 6 pm (0600 to 1700 GMT).

The country's borders were closed from late Friday and will not reopen until midnight Thursday. Full provisional results may not be available until Tuesday.