Gabon’s Risky Internet Shutdown, The World’s First Since 2011
Under the Radar is written by Jeremy Luedi for Global Risk Insights
Following contested elections on Aug. 27, Gabon has seen a crackdown as President Ali Bongo seeks to solidify his victory. The most visible sign of this was Gabon’s four day internet shutdown, which has been followed by daily internet curfews from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. The situation in Gabon is therefore unique, in that it represents the first time since the 2011 Arab Spring that a country has implemented scheduled, continuous internet curfews. The move has already garnered condemnation from the AU, EU, and UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon: indeed in 2011 the UN categorized blocking access to the internet a human rights violation.
Gabon’s infrastructure deficit has made it very easy for the government to throttle internet access, as many developing countries only have a single service provider. It is interesting that the government has decided to hamper Gabon’s internet; as a third of Gabon’s population lives below the poverty line, and only 10.3% of the populace has internet access to begin with. It should, however, be noted that the number of internet users in Gabon is outpacing population growth, at 3.9% and 2.19% respectively, as of 2014.
This internet crackdown in turn can be seen to be primarily focused on isolating those wealthier and better educated voters who may have supported Ping. Moreover, this curfew also acts to limit the amount of information leaving Gabon. This is vital if Bongo wishes to control the narrative internationally, as well as obscure any other forms of government heavy-handedness in the wake of the election.
Opposition continues to challenge result
Media censorship is par for the course for African leaders, and Gabon is no exception. Alongside the internet curfew, there have been deadly clashes between security forces and protesters, with at least two people killed after opposition headquarters were raided in Libreville. The government claimed it was looking for those responsible for previously setting the national assembly building on fire.
Opposition candidate Jean Ping is contesting the results of the election after he garnered 48.23% of the vote, compared to Bongo’s 49.8%. Officially, Ping lost the election by less than 6,000 votes, yet voting irregularities abound. Chief among them is the fact that Bongo won 95% of the vote with 99.9% of the turnout in his home province of Haut-Ogooue. These ludicrous numbers are only further undermined by the fact that general election turnout in the other provinces was around 48%.
EU election monitors have also reported these irregularities, and the African Union is sending monitors in response to Ping’s complaints. Foreign observers will be hard pressed as they face an uncooperative regime. Bongo’s family has ruled Gabon for almost 50 years, and as a result there are many established pro-Bongo patronage networks throughout all branches of government. The best example of this is that in the face of international and domestic calls for a recount, Bongo is hiding behind the Constitutional Court. The president claims that the matter is out of his hands, as only the Constitutional Court may issue a recount.
What he fails to advertise is that the head of said court is Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo, the longtime mistress of Bongo’s father.
Post-election uncertainty the result, and cause of, wary investors
Gabon’s internet crackdown and creative electioneering are heavily influenced by the deteriorating economic situation in the country. While GDP growth stood at 6% in 2014, it has since dropped to 3.2% for 2016, as the impact of low oil prices continues to dampen growth. Since oil accounts for 45% of government revenues and 85% of exports, Gabon has been hit hard. Less oil revenue funding government education and health programs has only increased discontent, especially since Bongo has styled himself as a reformer; one seeking to diversify the economy.
To this end, Bongo has unveiled the Plan Stratégique Gabon Emergent (PSGE), which aims to develop Gabon’s infrastructure, as well as increase the availability and reliability of electricity – the latter a keystone issue for the regime. In a catch-22, low oil prices have dried up the funds which the government was investing into diversification away from oil. Consequently, as Bongo’s PSGE falters due to funding issues, he has doubled down following the election in order to solidify his rule.
Despite the current turmoil, uncertainty for investors in Gabon precedes the election; as even in May, Fitch downgraded its outlook for Gabon’s B+ rating to negative, citing concerns about mounting instability.
More recently, mounting post-election uncertainty and violence has impacted investor confidence, with Gabon’s dollar bonds losing 1.4% this month, the worst performing bond market of 17 African countries tracked by Bloomberg (the group average was a gain of 0.6%). Specifically, yields on Gabon’s 2024 securities have climbed 77 basis points since the Aug. 27 presidential poll.
This is doubly bad for Gabon, as it not only makes the country a riskier investment destination, but it also means that Gabon is missing out on otherwise positive trends. Gabon’s election troubles has seen it fail to mirror the record sales of other emerging market bond issuers. Said issuers are benefitting from a run on developing nation bonds by investors seeking to lock in returns before the Fed increases interest rates.
Gabon’s poor performance in the bond markets only deprives the government of another source of revenue with which it could push forward on its PSGE plans. This will also dissuade investors from joining Gabonese efforts to open additional Special Economic Zones, another priority for the government.
With Ping calling for national strikes, the situation in Gabon is far from stabilizing. To add to the uncertainty, France – which maintains a military base in Gabon – has stated that it will not intervene (at least for now), as it has done in other African nations in recent years. With France distracted by its own domestic security concerns, investors have lost a potential stabilizing element. With Paris in no mood for any expeditionary action, the situation in Gabon is likely to deteriorate throughout the rest of 2016.
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