Ping, now 73, has been right there alongside the Bongos through much of that time. He served in the elder Bongo's cabinet for more than a decade and held high-ranking posts in supranational organizations, bringing his relatively unknown country to the international fore. He was president of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, president of the United Nations General Assembly and chairman of the Commission of the African Union. Ping even had two children with Omar Bongo's daughter Pascaline.
Now, pending results on Tuesday, Ping might be the man who unseats the Bongo dynasty.
Voting took place on Sunday. Ping and 13 others took on Ali Bongo, saying it is finally time for a change.
The way it works in Gabon, there's only one round of voting, and whoever gets the most votes wins, even if it is not a majority. Observers and officials alike have warned that regardless of who wins, the supporters of the loser may riot. When Ali Bongo won the election after his father's death, violence broke out amid allegations of fraud. In a phone interview, Gabon's ambassador to the United States said he expected unrest after the results are announced Tuesday.
Those anti-Bongo protests haven't let up. In 2014, Ping was at one of them. The then-leader of the African Union was tear-gassed while in the crowd. Ping and other opposition leaders say Ali Bongo has not let go of the corrupt practices of his father, who amassed huge personal wealth and lived lavishly during his decades in power. Gabon has one of the highest per capita incomes in Africa, largely because of its oil reserves, but at least a third of the country lives in poverty.
Ping has played up anti-incumbency feelings, and his supporters have carried that baton further by indulging in some serious conspiracy theories. One — which mirrors the "birther" movement seeking to delegitimize President Obama's American citizenship — holds that Ali Bongo is actually an adopted refugee child from Nigeria, a claim that would bar him from running for president in Gabon. The French government, which ruled Gabon as part of a vast equatorial colony at the time of Ali Bongo's birth, allowed a member of the Bongo family to review a birth certificate, but it was not released publicly. Ali Bongo is the only member of the Bongo family to not release personal identification documents.
On Monday, in response to the results of a partial vote count, mostly accounting for ballots in his home region, Ping declared himself the winner. He said he was waiting for Ali Bongo to call and offer his congratulations. Ping also alleged that he had won despite irregularities in voting, even though election observers from the European Union said the process was mostly fair. Further, Ping said that if he lost, he would consider it a theft.
Bongo's camp has called for calm and asked that declarations not be made until the full results are announced.
Given Gabon's history of postelection violence, Ping's declarations seem geared toward provoking anger if Bongo wins. "It is a very dangerous game he's playing," said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington. "Ping is portraying himself as an agent of change, but he's been in the government practically longer than Ali Bongo has even been alive. He needs people to forget about all that."
In March, Ping made similarly alarmist statements to the French newspaper Le Monde, saying that "Gabon is like the Titanic, heading for an iceberg and the band is playing on. And that iceberg, if nothing is done, is civil war."