A media crackdown in Gabon left people on Sunday searching for loved ones aided mainly by rumour and hope, following days of violence since the announcement that President Ali Bongo had been re-elected.
The post-election violence has so far claimed seven lives throughout the country, according to count; six civilians, mainly in the capital Libreville, and a police officer in the main northern town of Oyem.
Rumours of a higher death toll, notably in the economic capital Port-Gentil, have been swirling around despite the lack of any internet access.
Some 800 people have been arrested in the capital since the last weekend’s election result was announced on Wednesday, according to official figures.
“We are calling for the list of those arrested” and which police stations they are being held in, said lawyer Jean-Pierre Akumbu M’Oluna.
Bongo was declared victorious by a razor-thin margin of just under 6,000 votes, but his main challenger Jean Ping, a veteran diplomat and former top African Union official, has insisted the vote was rigged and on Friday claimed victory for himself.
“The whole world knows who is president of the republic, it’s me Jean Ping,” he said.
– ‘ Deep concern’ –
Ping is calling for vote recount, something the Gabonese authorities have categorically refused to contemplate.
The post-vote violence in this small but oil-rich central African nation, a former French colony, has sparked international concern with top diplomats calling for restraint as rights groups raise the alarm over the use of “excessive force”.
In a special session on Gabon on Thursday, the UN Security Council expressed “deep concern” about the situation, urging all sides to “refrain from violence or other provocations”.
And Washington has urged all parties to work together to “halt the slide towards further unrest.”
Two people in Libreville on Sunday said that they are still searching for loved ones missing since Wednesday night, when security forces stormed Ping’s offices.
“I’m looking for my son, Jocelyn. He was at Jean Ping’s headquarters,” said a woman who gave her name as Jacqueline.
A man, who preferred to remain anonymous, said he’d had no news of his brother since Wednesday.
“He’s married, father of four children,” said the man who has searched police stations, hospitals and even funeral parlours.
– Government silence –
Information is hard to come by. The government hasn’t issued any statements for days and even the regime-friendly L’Union newspaper hasn’t appeared since Wednesday.
“We were the object of an arson attack, we can’t work,” the paper’s boss Lin-Joel Ndembet stated, adding that he didn’t know when publication would resume.
The premises of private television channels Radio-Television Nazareth (RTN) and Tele Plus, have both been attacked.
The RTN offices were set ablaze late Wednesday “by hooded and heavily armed agents of the security forces,” the channel’s chief executive Georges Bruno Ngoussi said.
According to him, attacks on RTN began on August 28, the day after the presidential election, when it was reporting that Ping was ahead in the vote count.
Starved of information the Gabonese people have turned to French media, including RFI, France 24 AND TV5 Monde, which have special correspondents in Libreville but are largely absent in the provinces.
Some Gabonese TV channels are continuing to operate, if barely, notably Tele Gabon and Gabon 24 — public broadcasters close to the powers that be.
Tele Gabon ran in-house ads for television series while Gabon 24 repeatedly announced that the opening of parliament had been delayed until September 6.
The country had previously enjoyed relative political stability, mainly because former colonial power France helped Omar Bongo rule for 41 years.
After he died in June 2009, his son Ali won an election but opposition media claimed he had essentially been installed by France.