Supporters of Gabonese president Ali Bongo believe that their candidate "is the choice of reason" as he launched his election campaign in the Owendo commune on Friday. The Gabonese leader who is favourite to win a third term, will face 18 other candidates in next month's presidential election.
Celestin Mba Ndong, one of those attending the rally in Owendo, describes Bongo as "the choice of reason". "Already, through his speech, we understand perfectly that he is the true president, he has a strong message, he said this, he intends to continue strong actions." Ndong said.
Bongo's family has ruled the oil-rich West African state for 55 years. The 64-year-old, who took over from his father Omar Bongo Ondimba in 2009, officially announced in July that he would run again for president. The Gabonese Election Centre validated 19 of the 27 candidacy applications received, five more than in 2016.
This is no issue for one of his supporters Gabin Mombo, an activist and IT specialist. "I have the impression that for this year there is even a plagiarism of our social program, and today you saw it, convinced (Gabonese Democratic Party, PDG) PDGists like me came to give massive support to their unwavering choices, notably to President Ali Bongo Ondimba."
Bongo's leading rivals for the top job include Alexandre Barro Chambrier of the opposition Rally for the Fatherland and Modernity (RPM) party and the National Union's head Paulette Missambo.
The opposition failed to agree on a single candidate to challenge Bongo in the August 26 poll, but both candidates are former ministers and part of the Alternance 2023 coalition.
On July 23, a rally by Chambrier's party in the eastern city of Franceville was disrupted by an "unidentified group" who attacked activists, causing several minor injuries, Eddy Minang, the city's public prosecutor, told AFP.
In a statement issued Monday, the RPM described the attackers as "rioters in the pay of the government".
- Changes to electoral code -
In April, the Gabonese parliament voted to amend the constitution and reduce the president's term from seven to five years.
Sections of the opposition criticised the changes, in particular the end of two rounds of voting which they see as a means of "facilitating the re-election" of Bongo.
With less than five weeks to go to the elections, Alternance 2023 has denounced modifications to the electoral code.
These notably include a move to allow a maximum of only three observers at each polling station -- one for the ruling majority, one for the opposition and one for all independent candidates.
Previously every candidate could appoint an observer for every polling station.
"The claim of parity between the majority and the opposition is a trick. It favours supposed opposition parties without any candidates or very few," Francois Ndong Obiang, head of the Reagir party, told a meeting of Alternance member parties on Friday.
Prime Minister Alain-Claude Bilie-By-Nze had last week urged the opposition not to "throw oil on the fire".
"In order to hold a calm election, those involved must be careful not to throw oil on the fire," he posted on Twitter.
Bongo's powerful Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) holds strong majorities in both houses of parliament.
- Fit to run the nation? -
The president was narrowly re-elected in 2016, with just 5,500 more votes than rival Jean Ping who claimed the election had been fixed.
The announcement of the results sparked violence in the capital Libreville that left five dead, according to the government. The opposition says 30 people were shot dead by the security forces.
Bongo suffered a stroke in 2018 and spent months on the sidelines recovering, leaving the opposition to question his fitness to run the nation.
He still has a stiff arm and leg and mobility difficulties, but in recent months has held "republican meetings" around the country and made official visits abroad, including for summits.
The presidential ballot will coincide with elections for the National Assembly and regional and local councils.
Gabon is one of the richest countries in Africa in terms of per capita GDP due largely to its oil revenue and relatively small population of 2.3 million.
A third of the population still live below the poverty threshold, according to the World Bank.