Gabon, a country in West Africa rich in oil, was until recently ruled by the same family, the Bongo Dynasty. Ali Bongo Ondimba son and successor to the late President Omar Bongo was about to have won his third term as the President of the Republic by a 60.27 % of votes cast when on Wednesday a group of mutinous soldiers appeared on state TV saying they had seized power in the capital Libreville ending the fifty-six year rule of the Bongo family.1 They had cancelled the election results “putting an end to the current regime”.2 The coup declaration came within hours of the announcement of Ali Bongo’s unpopular victory at the polls.3 Bongo’s main challenger Albert Ondo Ossa, got 30.77 % of the vote.4
He was the presidential candidate at the helm of a coalition of parties.5 Ondo Ossa had denounced the election result as “fraud orchestrated by the Bongo camp”, claiming victory ahead of the closure of polls.”6 The soldiers however who led the coup and were speaking on behalf of the “Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions”, stated the election results were annulled and the borders closed.7 They also announced the dissolution of state institutions, including the government, the Senate, the National Assembly, the Constitutional Court, the Economic, Social, and Environmental Council and the Gabonese Election Centre”.8
The new leader is Gen. Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema, head of the elite republican guard unit, who soldiers announced on state TV Wednesday, hours after President Ali Bongo Ondimba was declared winner of last week’s presidential election, which Gabonese and observers say was marred with irregularities and a lack of transparency.
The soldiers accused Bongo of irresponsible governance that risked leading the country into chaos and have put him under house arrest and detained several people in his cabinet, they said. While there were legitimate grievances about the vote and Bongo’s rule, his ousting is just a pretext to claim power for themselves, Gabon experts say. “The timing of the coup, following the announcement of the implausible electoral results, and the speed with which the junta is moving suggests this was planned in advance,” said Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
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“While there are many legitimate grievances about the vote and Bongo’s rule, that has little to do with the coup attempt in Gabon. Raising those grievances is just a smokescreen,” he said. Gabon’s coup is the eighth military takeover in Central and West Africa in three years and comes roughly a month after Niger‘s democratically elected president was ousted. Unlike Niger and neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, which have each had two coups apiece since 2020 and are being overrun by extremist violence, Gabon was seen as relatively stable. However, Bongo’s family has been accused of endemic corruption and not letting the country’s oil wealth trickle down to the population of some 2 million people. Bongo, 64, has served two terms since coming to power in 2009 after the death of his father, who ruled the country for 41 years, and there has been widespread discontent with his reign.
Another group of mutinous soldiers attempted a coup in 2019 but was quickly overpowered. The former French colony is a member of OPEC+, but its oil wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few — and nearly 40% of Gabonese aged 15 to 24 were out of work in 2020, according to the World Bank. Its oil export revenue was $6 billion in 2022, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. (‘Planned in advanced’: Was Gabon coup timed to follow election results?)
Gabon is what experts have called a kleptocracy (a state where the government exploits the country’s resources to its advantage). The current leader of the Junta Gen. Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema is a cousin of the deposed president and this is well known to the opposition. Right now, the immediate plans of the Junta are not known. Gabon is a small country and with all the borders and air space closed off, it would be difficult for the media to get in to the country. This will leave a lot of questions that need to be answered. What are the main goals of the Junta? Will they negotiate with the opposition? Will they relinquish power to a civilian government to hold new elections with out the Bongos and their allies? Will they see to it that a new constitution is drawn up with term limits?
These are some of the questions that the people of Gabon, the country’s opposition and the international community should be asking. The coup leaders may have anticipated there would have been large scale protests led by the opposition against the results. The army would have been ordered by Bongo to retaliate. They therefore decided to act ahead of time, because they knew the elections would be rigged. Gabon is ruled by an authoritarian regime would a weak civil society. The French have had strong grip on how the country’s oil flows. They stand to lose the most if a new anti- establishment/Bongo government takes office. This coup against the Bongo regime is just the tip of the iceberg. In Gabon there is no independent judiciary or legal prosecuting authority.
Without an independent investigate body it would be very difficult for even the opposition through parliament to monitor how the revenue brought in by oil is spent or where it goes. The administration of Ali Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo set up an oligarchy and dictatorship based on a one-party state. During the 90s when opposition political parties were allowed to contest elections he (Omar Bongo) relied on a culture of tribal loyalties to cultivate a divide and rule strategy. Gabon which suffers from a rising unemployment rate, could still face nationwide protests if the Junta doesn’t relinquish power to a civilian government. It could see the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) intervene to avert a civil war and chaos. The clock is ticking. (Note at the time of reading this article the Gabonese borders were re-opened).