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World News

WITNESS: You can't miss "Ali" in pre-vote Gabon

LIBREVILLE (Reuters) - As soon as you get out of Libreville’s international airport, he is there.

Images of “Ali” -- the son of late President Omar Bongo who is front-runner to succeed him in Sunday’s presidential election -- dominate the city.

He grins from head-height posters, strikes a statesman-like pose in roadside hoardings and, in digital installations along the main coastal drag, reminds his fellow citizens they are on the brink of a historic new era.

“We must act together in confidence to build the Gabon of the future,” the mantra runs, wrapping together the three keywords of his campaign: “together,” “confidence,” “future.”

By styling himself plain “Ali,” Ali-Ben Bongo Ondimba, 50, is out for popular appeal and particularly the youth vote.

Dressed in a white polo shirt and baseball cap branded with his “Ali ‘9” logo, the ex-defense minister ends rallies by dancing stiffly to a “democracy and equality” themed hip-hop track.

There are posters for his opponents, too -- though much less glossy and far less frequent, reflecting what critics say is the enormous war chest of election finances at his disposal as the candidate of the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG).

What’s more, the sheer number of rival candidates -- 22 are standing against him -- and their disparate images and messages tend to be swamped by Bongo’s ubiquity.

Despite a desire for change among many Gabonese -- including those who did not benefit from decades of oil riches under his father -- Ali has genuine supporters, and not just those given “Ali “9”-branded T-shirts and baseball caps.

“He is the best man,” said one of the city’s many taxi drivers-turned-political analysts.

“He has a lot of the people, and he has a lot of the army. If someone else wins, it will be difficult for them to take control of the army.”

WAGGING TONGUES

Which brings us to the darker side of this election.

Gabon’s political classes were febrile with rumor-mongering in the build-up to the poll.

The week before I arrived, talk was that several high-ranking PDG members and disgruntled army officers were ganging up to seize power before Bongo -- at that time still defense minister -- could run.

The appointed day for the supposed coup d’etat came and went without incident. But that didn’t stop tongues wagging.

Last weekend, the word on the street was that the government was preparing to cut internet and mobile and phone connections on election day to prevent news getting out.

Could it only be coincidence, the argument went, that across the city, adverts for satellite telephones have sprung up?

Whatever the truth of the bar-room exchanges, the Gabonese are keener to vote than many of their counterparts in the region, which this year has seen a string of tainted, ill-attended polls pass with little sense of popular outrage.

The level of political discourse is different too: when asked what they want from their leader, people here say “change,” rather than the normal “food, water and a job.”

Yet an air of nervousness surrounds this small country of 1.5 million people, who for the first time in 42 years of tight rule by Ali’s father, will see ballot papers without the name of Omar Bongo.

The interior ministry this week urged citizens on Sunday to cast their vote, go home -- and stay there.

This reporter spent a sleepless night and most of the next day held in Libreville airport awaiting media accreditation -- perhaps not too surprising, given Gabon’s 110th place out of 173 countries in press rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders’ index of media freedoms.

Will I be back soon in Gabon to report on the first days in power of Ali, or will one of his rivals produce an upset? In either case, I’ll bring a sleeping bag.

Editing by Mark John and Sara Ledwith

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