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Gabon

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African Elections

There are a number of ways to win an African election. The simplest, obviously, is to win the most votes, but this is sometimes hard to achieve, especially if you have been the president for a long time and people are getting fed up with your rule.

If your country’s constitution only allows two terms as president, then your first task is to change it, as half a dozen African leaders have already done (Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda, etc.). Now you can run again – but you still have to win the election.

You might just stuff the ballot boxes and have the army shoot anybody who objects, but this approach has high potential costs. Killing protesters will damage your international reputation, and may even lead to sanctions and freezes on your secret assets abroad. The African Union or Ecowas (the Economic Community of West African States) may also take you to task, or even send troops if you kill too many people.

It’s better to make it look like you really won the election. Fiddling with voter registration can exclude lots of opposition voters, and turning off the internet on election day makes it hard for the opposition’s election monitors to keep track of the count.

But if the votes are being counted in public and the numbers are going against you, then you have to stop the count until you can fix it. Standard practice in this case is to claim technical difficulties until you have time to massage the vote.

This was President Ali Bongo’s solution in Gabon’s election last August. He was clearly losing the count, but the results from the distant province of Haut-Ogooue (Bongo’s home province) were mysteriously delayed.

The opposition leaders weren’t worried, because to change the outcome almost every living person in Haut-Ogooue (and a few of the recently dead) would have had to vote for Bongo. But then the results arrived: 99.93 percent of the province’s population had allegedly turned out to vote, and 95 percent of them had allegedly voted for Bongo. So he “won” another term as president by 5,594 votes.

People in Haut-Ogooue may be remarkably healthy and civic-minded, but you NEVER get a 99 percent turnout in an election. (The turnout in Gabon’s other provinces was between 45 percent and 71 percent.)

It was a transparent and shameless fraud, but fewer than a dozen people were killed in the subsequent protests, so Ali Bongo is starting another seven-year term as president. Not bad for a kid who started out as the humble son of Omar Bongo, president of Gabon from 1967 until his death in 2009.

President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo should have used the same tactics to get re-elected. DR Congo’s constitution imposes a two-term limit, and he had already served two seven-year terms since his father, President Laurent Kabila, was assassinated in 2001, but for whatever reason, he didn’t change the constitution in time.

Instead, Kabila ended up facing an election in November 2016 in which he was not legally allowed to run. To win more time, he announced that the election could not be held on time for “logistical and financial reasons,” and that he would therefore stay on as “transitional president” until 2018.

It’s ridiculous. In the seven years since the last election, Kabila couldn’t find the time and money to organise the next one? The only possible conclusion is that he is either completely incompetent or a bare-faced liar. (In fact, he’s both.)

And since DR Congo is big enough (70 million people compared to Gabon’s 1.6 million) to contain lots of tough, clever politicians with their own strong regional bases, Kabila is not getting away with it.

The powerful Catholic church has stepped in to act as mediator, and Archbishop Marcel Utembi has just persuaded government ministers and opposition leaders to sign a document promising to hold the election this year. In the meantime, an opposition politician will serve as Kabila’s prime minister.

Kabila has not yet signed the document himself, but the agreement also says that he must not try to end term limits. It looks like he will have to retire – in which case DR Congo will see its first peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1960.

It’s easy to be cynical about democracy in Africa, but there is as much good news as bad. Last month Ghana’s sitting president lost an election and tamely handed power over to the winner. In 2015 the same thing happened in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest country. The glass is not empty. It is half-full.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 8. (“If…election”; “People…percent”; and

Who Is Human?

21 May 2003

Who Is Human?

By Gwynne Dyer

Once upon a time it was acceptable to eat people who didn’t belong to the tribe. Human beings have come a long way since then, and we may yet go further. We might even make killing some non-humans a crime.

The idea that the great apes, at least, ought to have the protection of the same laws that forbid the murder and torture of human beings has been part of the public debate for a quarter-century, since philosopher Peter Singer wrote his ground-breaking book ‘Animal Liberation’ in 1975. “We now have sufficient information about the capacities of the great apes to make it clear that the moral boundary we draw between us and them is indefensible,” he said when he co-founded the Great Ape Project in 1993, and a growing number of people would agree. But opinions would shift even faster if biologists were to re-classify chimpanzees as humans.

That, essentially, is what Professor Morris Goodman is up to. In a paper published this week in the ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’, Goodman, a geneticist at the Wayne State University school of medicine in Detroit, proposes that chimpanzees and their close relatives bonobos (‘dwarf chimps’) be redefined as members of the genus Homo. They are now treated as a separate genus — Pan troglodytes and Pan paniscus — while human beings are seen as the sole surviving species of the genus Homo. Under Goodman’s classification, we would all be members of the same genus: Homo sapiens, Homo troglodytes, and Homo paniscus.

It has long been known that human beings and chimps have about 98 percent common genes, but Goodman’s team concentrated on the crucial ‘coding’ regions of 97 genes that are shared by humans, chimps, gorillas, orangutans, old-world monkeys and mice. All the great apes came out even closer to human beings than previously thought: for humans and chimps, the match was 99.4 percent. So Goodman argues that all the great apes including humans should be seen as members of the same family, Hominidae — and people and chimps as members of the same genus, Homo.

Goodman’s team got different results because they ignored the non-coding DNA that predominates in the genome of every species, but does not actually influence development. Since ‘junk DNA’ has no consequences in the real world, any random change in it is preserved and mutations accumulate fast. ‘Coding’ DNA controls real biological processes, and since most random mutations have negative consequences for the individual involved they are quickly eliminated by natural selection: he dies, probably leaving no offspring. Coding’ DNA changes slowly — and that is where Goodman found the even closer match between humans and chimps.

Why would this matter to anyone but biologists? Because bringing people and the great apes closer together by calling us all Hominidae, and putting people and chimps in the same tight little family Homo, is also a way of emphasising how much humans and chimps have in common emotionally, socially and intellectually. What Goodman is really after is a change in the legal status of chimps: “The finding would support those who want to extend legal controls to stop the abuse of chimps.” Abuse is a pretty mild word, in the circumstances.

The great apes now face what would, if they were truly seen as human, be called a genocide. Wars, forest clearance for logging and farming, and hunting of ‘bushmeat’ for food are decimating the chimpanzees and gorillas of Central Africa, their main habitat. There are probably only about 250,000 great apes of all species left in the wild, and chimps and gorillas are nearing extinction in the Congo and Gabon: a recent search for a long-studied gorilla band of 140 named individuals found only seven left alive.

So a change in their legal status would certainly help, and bit by bit it is coming. Britain was the first to ban the use of chimps in research, and New Zealand and Sweden have followed (though some 1,700 chimps are still held in captivity for research purposes in the United States). More controversially, the Great Ape Project gave birth a couple of years ago to the Great Ape Legal Project, which campaigns for laws that would recognise the ‘humanhood’ of the great apes based not just on their close genetic relationship with us, but also on their intelligence, strong emotions, self-awareness, and limited language ability.

If you deny the great apes ‘human rights’, the radicals argue, then logically you should also deny them to human beings with severe mental handicaps. Morris Goodman is no campaigning radical, but his motive for reclassifying the great apes as human is not only scientific. He clearly feels that it would help to bridge the psychological gulf that must be crossed before we grant them human legal status — a gulf at least as wide as the ones we crossed when we decided that slavery was wrong, or that even females should be allowed to vote.

Granting ‘human rights’ to the great apes would be part of the same process by which we have steadily widened the scope of our moral imagination from the tight circle of the hunter-gatherer band until it (sometimes) embraces the whole of the human race. “Extending the circle of compassion, first of all to our closest living relatives,” as anthropologist Jane Goodall puts it, is the natural next step, and it will probably come to pass eventually. Though perhaps not in time to do the apes much good.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Goodman’s…chimps”;and “If…vote”)