Gabon experiences military takeover as officers seize power, President Ali Bongo under custody
By Gerauds Wilfried Obangome
Wednesday, August 30, 2023
LIBREVILLE, Aug 30 (Reuters) – Military officials in the oil-rich nation of Gabon have announced that they have taken control of the government on Wednesday. They have placed President Ali Bongo under house arrest, intervening immediately after the country’s election body declared Bongo the winner of a third term.
The military officers, who claim to represent the armed forces, stated on national television that they were nullifying the election results, shutting down borders, and dissolving state institutions. This comes after a highly tense vote that would have extended the Bongo family’s more than 50-year rule in power.
One of the officers, identified as Brice Oligui Nguema, appeared to be the leader of the group in a video. He told French newspaper Le Monde that he and other generals would convene to select a candidate to lead the transitional government.
Hundreds of people in the capital city of Gabon celebrated the military’s intervention, while France, the former colonial ruler of Gabon, which has troops stationed in the country, condemned the coup.
If successful, the Gabon coup would be the eighth to occur in West and Central Africa since 2020. The most recent coup, in Niger, took place in July. Military officers have also seized power in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Chad, reversing democratic progress made since the 1990s.
“I am marching today because I am filled with joy. After nearly 60 years, the Bongos are no longer in power,” said Jules Lebigui, a 27-year-old unemployed individual who joined the crowds in Libreville.
The officers claimed to have detained President Bongo, who assumed office in 2009 following his father Omar’s rule since 1967. They also stated that they had arrested the president’s son, Noureddin Bongo Valentin, and others on charges of corruption and treason.
Opponents argue that the Bongo family has done very little to distribute the country’s oil and mining wealth to its 2.3 million citizens. Following Bongo’s disputed election victory in 2016, violent protests erupted, and a coup attempt was foiled in 2019.
The Gabonese officers, calling themselves “The Committee of Transition and the Restoration of Institutions,” declared that the country is facing “a severe institutional, political, economic, and social crisis.” They deemed the August 26 election as lacking credibility.
Republican Guard Chief Nguema informed Le Monde that a leader had not yet been chosen, but a meeting would be held on Wednesday to make that decision.
“Everyone will present their ideas, and the best ones will be chosen, as well as the person to lead the transition,” he said.
Television footage showed a man who appeared to be Nguema being lifted by soldiers, who chanted “Oligui president,” using one of his names.
There has been no immediate response from Gabon’s government.
Bongo, aged 64, was last publicly seen casting his vote on Saturday. Before the election, he appeared to be in better health than during his more fragile television appearances following his stroke in 2018.
“We denounce the military coup and reiterate our commitment to free and transparent elections,” stated French government spokesperson Olivier Veran.
The coup further adds to the uncertainty surrounding France’s presence in the region. France currently has around 350 troops in Gabon. Its forces have been expelled from Mali and Burkina Faso following coups in those countries over the past two years.
In contrast to Niger and other Sahel countries, Gabon, located further south on the Atlantic coast, has not had to confront destabilizing Islamist insurgencies. However, the coup is a sign of increasing democratic regression in the volatile region.
The Chair of the African Union’s Peace and Security Council has called for a meeting to discuss the situation with Burundi, Senegal, and Cameroon.
China has called for a peaceful resolution, while Russia expressed hope for a swift return to stability.
“Given that the coup leaders claim to represent all factions of Gabon’s security apparatus, it is unlikely that Mr. Bongo will be able to suppress the uprising,” wrote Rukmini Sanyal, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit. She cited “widespread public discontent” against Bongo, his family, and his ruling party.
Gabon currently produces around 200,000 barrels of oil per day, mainly from depleting fields. International companies, including France’s TotalEnergies and Anglo-French producer Perenco, have investments in Gabon.
French mining company Eramet, which operates substantial manganese operations in Gabon, announced that its operations have been halted.
Concerns about the transparency of the election were raised due to the lack of international observers, the suspension of certain foreign broadcasts, and the imposition of internet cuts and a nighttime curfew after Saturday’s vote. Bongo’s team rejected allegations of fraud.
Internet access appeared to be restored for the first time since the election on Wednesday.
Shortly before the announcement of the coup, the election authority declared Bongo the winner with 64.27% of the vote and stated that his main rival, Albert Ondo Ossa, obtained 30.77%.
Gabon’s dollar-denominated bonds initially dropped by up to 14 cents on Wednesday before recovering approximately 2 cents of their losses.
Additional reporting by Alessandra Prentice, Elizabeth Pineau, Sofia Christensen, Sudip Kar-Gupta, and Liz Lee; Writing by Nellie Peyton and Sofia Christensen; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Edmund Blair.