After a dramatic situation in Niger, Gabon became the latest African country to plunge into political chaos after military soldiers seized power and announced the cancellation of elections and dissolution of institutions. The mutinous soldiers have placed General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema, head of the elite presidential guard unit, replacing President Ali Bongo Ondimba, whose family has ruled the nation for over five decades.
“On behalf of the Gabonese people and guarantor of the protection of institutions, CTRI (the Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions) has decided to defend peace by putting an end to the regime in place,” a military officer said on the broadcast.
The dramatic development emerged after Ali Bongo, who has been in power for 14 years, was declared the winner of the presidential elections last week. Following the coup, Bongo was placed under house arrest in his residence, while several government officials were also arrested on various charges, said the military officers.
The detained Gabonese president called on his citizens to “make noise” after the coup attempt, but videos on social media showed a different scenario, where citizens were seen dancing and celebrating the military takeover on the streets of its capital Libreville. Some of them people can be seen shouting “liberated!” and waving the Gabon flag in the Nzeng Ayong district of the capital, alongside military vehicles.
Why was Ali Bongo ousted?
Bongo's family, which has ruled Gabon for 55 years, has been accused of corruption and getting richer on the oil-rich country's resource wealth, while many of its citizens are struggling to survive. The mutinous soldiers have accused Bongo of irresponsible governance that has risked leading the African nation into chaos.
The criticism is not just limited to the military. Several observers have also noted that the recently-conducted elections in Gabon were marked with irregularities and lack of transparency. The 64-year-old Bongo has served two terms since coming to power in 2009 and there was widespread discontent over his reign.
The former French colony is a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), but the oil wealth is concentrated only in the hands of a few people. Nearly 40% of the Gabonese youth is unemployed despite the oil export revenue reaching $6 billion in 2022.
Despite discontent over Bongo's rule, it was seen as relatively stable before joining other Central and West African nations to witness a dramatic military coup, roughly a month after Niger's democratically-elected President Mohamed Bazoum was ousted in a similar fashion by mutinuous soldiers comprising of his presidential guard.
Gabon's tumultuous past
Earlier this month, Bongo assured the citizens that a military coup would never happen as the country marked 60 years of independence from France. "While our continent has been shaken in recent weeks by violent crises, rest assured that I will never allow you and our country Gabon to be hostages to attempts at destabilization. Never," he said.
Now, Bongo has been arrested for 'high betrayal', embezzlement and corruption. His father Omar Bongo was the President of Gabon from 1967 till his death in 2009. During his tenure of 41 years, Omar continued security partnerships with France and the United States.
However, Ali Bongo has faced several challenges in his reign. His narrow victory in 2016 elections were marked by violent protests. The ousted President also suffered a stroke in late 2018 that prevented him from performing his duties for months.
It was January 9, 2019, when soldiers in Gabon appeared on state television saying they launched a coup to “restore democracy” in the West African country. At that time, Lieutenant Obiang Ondo Kelly, commander of the Republican Guard, read a statement saying the military had seized control of the government. He was flanked by two other soldiers holding weapons and all were dressed in camouflage uniforms and green berets.
However, the attempted coup was quickly thwarted by the Gabonese government and several army officers were arrested. Two plotters were killed by security forces.
It is important to mention that Bongo remains one of Africa’s richest heads of state, and his and his family's wealth is likely to be scrutinized even more now after the dramatic ouster.
Apart from rising unemployment, Gabonese citizens have been suffering from rising fuel prices, high cost of living and what human rights observers have called efforts to stifle the opposition. While Gabon had abolished limits on presidential term limits, last week's election was said to have no international observers.
Aftermath and possible future
Despite Bongo's best efforts to project Gabon as a global leader in environmental conservation, his ouster was celebrated by the citizens who were seen dancing and cheering in the streets of Libreville. Hours after the ouster, neighbouring Cameroon has shuffled his military leadership on the orders of President Paul Biya, who has ruled the country for 40 years.
Additionally, Rwandan President Paul Kagame "accepted the resignation" of a dozen generals and over 80 senior military officers. Djibouti's President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh has also condemned the coup in Gabon. This is in response of a trend of military coups in Africa that have worried Western countries and observers.
However, the White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby in the US said that it was too early to call the attempted coup in Gabon a trend.
There have been nine coups in the past three years in former French colonies – Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Tunisia and now Gabon. Niger and neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, have been grappling with the risks of extremist violence by Islamic terror groups for years.
Since Gabon has been a useful ally for the US and France, there is no doubt that the latest coup is bound to be a setback for the diplomatic outreach of the West. It remains to be seen whether the coup would attract sanctions as Niger did. Another important development would be to see how the political conundrum tilts in Russia's favour, as its mercenary group Wagner has already established its base in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger as well.