The Gabonese government has put down a coup attempt after a group of soldiers briefly took over state radio and broadcast a statement calling on people to “rise up” while the president, Ali Bongo, is in Morocco recovering from a stroke.
Authorities have regained control of the state broadcasting offices and a major thoroughfare in the capital, Libreville, which were the only areas taken by the plotters, the government spokesman Guy-Bertrand Mapangou told Radio France International.
At 4.30am (0530 GMT) on Monday a man identifying himself as Lt Kelly Ondo Obiang read out a message on state radio that was simultaneously filmed for social media.
Obiang was flanked by two armed men, all in the uniform and green berets of the powerful Republican Guard, which is usually tasked with protecting the president.
“The eagerly awaited day has arrived when the army has decided to put itself on the side of the people in order to save Gabon from chaos,” he said. “If you are eating, stop; if you are having a drink, stop; if you are sleeping, wake up. Wake up your neighbours … rise up as one and take control of the street,” he added, calling on Gabonese to occupy the country’s airports, public buildings and media organisations.
The president of Gabon, Ali Bongo. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
A witness told Reuters a crowd of about 300 people had gathered in support of the attempted coup at the state broadcasting headquarters, where the military fired teargas to disperse them.
The Bongo family has ruled Gabon since 1967, except for four months in 2009 after Ali Bongo’s father, Omar, died.
Four of the five plotters were taken into custody on Monday morning, Mapangou told France 24. The fifth was caught in the afternoon. “The government is in place. The institutions are in place,” Mapangou said. The communications minister said the men were “a group of jokers and the military hierarchy does not recognise them”.
Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chair of the African Union, said he strongly condemned the coup attempt. A spokeswoman for the French foreign ministry also criticised the action in its former colony. “Gabon’s stability can only be ensured in strict compliance with the provisions of its constitution,” she said.
Bongo became ill in October while on a visit to Saudi Arabia. Rather than going home, he went to recuperate in Morocco, from where he gave a New Year’s Day statement in which he admitted he had been “through a difficult period, as sometimes happens in life”. He said he was preparing to return home soon.
Obiang said Bongo’s speech, in which he slurred some words and appeared unable to move his right arm, had “reinforced doubts about the president’s ability to continue to carry out the responsibilities of his office”.
Omar Bongo squandered much of Gabon’s vast oil wealth and kept close ties with France in a system known as Françafrique. Ali Bongo tried to set himself apart from his father but lost any moral high ground at the last presidential vote.
He was the beneficiary of an election in 2016 that was widely acknowledged to have been rigged amid violence from the country’s security forces. Ostensibly he won 49.8% of the vote to his rival Jean Ping’s 48.23%. Ping had looked set to win until results from Haut-Ogooué, Bongo’s home region, were announced. The electoral commission claimed a 99.98% turnout in Haut-Ogooué, compared with 59% everywhere else, and said 95% of those who cast votes there did so for the president.
The opposition accused the Republican Guard of bombing its headquarters in the aftermath.
On Friday, Donald Trump sent 80 troops to Gabon to defend US interests and “further foreign policy” in the nearby Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the Catholic church has warned of an uprising if the result of an election on 30 December is not respected.