Presidential hopefuls in row over 'unity' candidate

Four candidates who reportedly pulled out of Gabon's presidential race to back a rival to frontrunner Ali Bongo Ondimba have dismissed the allegation, the latest twist in a fast-changing and increasingly confusing electoral campaign.


AFP - A bid to find a unity candidate in Gabon's presidential election backfired Friday, as four contenders denied having pulled out of Sunday's race to rally behind a rival to frontrunner Ali Bongo.

All four dismissed a statement issued earlier Friday saying they had agreed to back former minister Andre Mba Obame in a bid to beat Ali Bongo Ondimba, son of the former president Omar Bongo Ondimba.

But representatives of five other candidates told a press conference that they had decided to stand down and support Mba Obame, in line with an initial statement released by his camp.

Until Friday, 23 politicians were in the race to take over from Bongo, who died early in June after 41 years at the helm of the oil-rich central African nation, where an estimated 60 percent of the population of 1.5 million live below the poverty level.

The original statement, issued after talks that went into the early hours Friday, said 11 candidates had quit the race in favour of Mba Obame, who beat former prime minister Jean Eyeghe Ndong to become the unity candidate in a secret ballot.

But four of those listed in the statement swiftly issued denials.

Casimir Oye Mba, former minister for mines, oil and hydrocarbons, seen as one of the frontrunners, said he was still in the race.

"I am and I remain a candidate in Sunday's presidential poll," Oye Mba said, adding that he was about to take a plane to the provinces for a rally. "I'm pursuing my campaign like I began it."

Three other presidential hopefuls -- Victoire Lasseni Duboze, Bruno Ben Moubamba and Jules Aristide Bourdes Ogouliguende -- also denounced their inclusion in the statement.

"It's a dirty trick," Moubamba told AFP.

Those who confirmed that they had stood down were Eyeghe Ndong, former deputy prime minister Paul Mba Abessole, independent candidate Mehdi Teale, business leader Jean Ntoumoume Ngoua and the Pentecostal leader Anna Claudine Assayi Ayo.

Mba Obame's spokesman Francois Ondo Edou told Friday's press conference that 13 of the candidates or their representatives had attended the long meeting and said, "There was no hint of manipulation."

Oye Mba told journalists he had returned to Libreville late Thursday to find the meeting under way and said, "I observed that a whole day hadn't been enough for them to reach a precise political decision."

He had stayed until midnight, but was tired from campaigning, and went to bed, only to hear in the morning that "candidates had allegedly rallied round Mba Obama," he added.

"You can type my name on a statement, but what matters is my signature," Oye Mba added, disassociating himself from the text.

But Assayi Ayo told journalists, "The first person who voted was Casimir Oye Mba. It was he who suggested the idea of a vote!"

Ben Moubamba recalled that when Mba Obame was minister of the interior, he had last January jailed leaders of non-governmental organisations who wrote an open letter that was highly critical of the Bongo regime.

As things stand, Ali Bongo remains the overwhelming favourite to succeed his father, and he has himself spoken out against the former system of favouritism and kickbacks among an elite.

The ruling Gabonese Democratic Party backs him and he has a huge campaign war chest, but the opposition has denounce the corruption and favouritism that is endemic in Gabon and fears it will continue under Ali Bongo.

Gabon is sub-Saharan Africa's fourth biggest oil producer, the world's third biggest provider of manganese and Africa's second biggest wood exporter.

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