Minutes after the news that Ali Bongo Ondimba had once again won the presidential election in the Gabonese capital, Libreville, on 30 August this year, a group of military officers announced onGabon 24 television channel that he had been removed from power, the results of the election annulled, the Government dissolved, the borders closed and a Committee for the Transition and Restoration of State Authority established. The committee, which was headed by the Commander of the Republican Guard, General Brice Oligui Nguema, comprised members of the regular army, the Republican Guard and other security forces.
Speaking on their behalf, Colonel Ulrich Manfumbi assured foreign donors that the new military administration would “honour commitments”, both domestic and international, and build the new state institutions “step by step”.
Like the coup in Niger on 26 July this year, the military’s intervention in Gabon, which has been less exposed to Islamist attacks than West Africa and was considered a relatively peaceful state, came as a complete surprise to many observers. It affected the President himself, who, in his annual Independence Day speech on 17 August, had the temerity to declare that “although our continent has been shaken by severe crises in recent weeks, rest assured that I will never allow all of us, or Gabon as a whole, to fall victim to destabilisation”.
However, the coup d’état had been a long time coming and was due to the fact that after suffering a stroke in 2018, Ali Bongo was unable to fully manage the affairs of the state, but continued to hold the reins of power with the help of his family members, especially his wife Sylvia Bongo and his son Noureddin Bongo, whom she actively promoted to replace his father, which caused great discontent in the power structures.
The deteriorating economic situation of the majority of the population, with the widening gap between the rich and the poor, also led to growing discontent not only among the urban and rural population, but also among the military. This was evidenced in particular by the coup attempt by a group of officers in 2019, which was brutally suppressed by the authorities
According to Joseph Siegle, one of the heads of the US Defense Department’s African Centre for Strategic Studies, the speed with which Ali Bongo was removed from power (minutes after his election victory was announced) suggests that it was a pre-planned action.
In addition to the need to replace Ali Bongo as president for health reasons, the Bongo clan in the broad sense of the word, including its allies and supporters, faced another important challenge – to prevent the election results from bringing to power a political opposition that was gaining strength and thus preventing a repeat of the events of 2016, when demonstrators set fire to the parliament building in protest against the election fraud. In these circumstances, the ruling elite, in order to maintain its leading position, went ahead of the curve by organising the removal of the president, who had lost his capacity.
Commenting on the outcome of the coup, Gabonese opposition leader Albert Ondo Ossa told French media on 31 August that the ousted president’s family was behind the coup and did it in order to maintain its position in power after more than five decades of ruling the oil- and mineral-rich country. Therefore, in his view, the event should be qualified “not as a coup d’état but as a palace coup.” According to the politician, as well as many media reports, General Nguema is a cousin of Ali Bongo, served as bodyguard to his father, Omar Bongo, and later became head of the Republican Guard, which was responsible for guarding critical state institutions and ensuring the personal security of the President.
Notably, the Associated Press observed that “the overthrow of an authoritarian leader like Bongo has worried” many figures on the continent. Within hours of the reported coup in Gabon, President Paul Biya of neighbouring, who has been in power for 40 years, reshuffled his military leadership, while Rwandan President Paul Kagame (in power since 2000) “accepted the resignation” of a dozen of his generals and more than 80 senior officers.
The coup in Gabon, notes Britain’s The Economist, is further compelling evidence of the crushing failure of French policy in Africa. 16 of the 24 coups d’états on the continent since 2000 have taken place in French-speaking countries. Their causes, the magazine notes, lie in Paris’s unceremonious interference in the internal affairs of these states, while protecting the interests of corrupt African elites who enrich themselves at the expense of the bulk of the population, which lives in poverty.
The experts of the United States Institute of Peace, who believe that the removal of President Ali Bongo from power is the result of social and political dissatisfaction with authoritarian methods of governance, accompanied by the plundering of national resources by the local elite and deep social inequalities among various segments of the population.Paradoxically, while one third of the population can barely make ends meet on $2 a day, at the same time the country has become Africa’s largest consumer of champagne, according to The China Project, a New York-based publication.
The removal of Ali Bongo from power was greeted with cheers by much of the population. Hundreds of people took to the streets of the capital to celebrate. This is primarily because, despite the fact that Gabon has the third highest GDP per capita in Africa ($9,000) according to the World Bank, one in three people live below the poverty line and 40 per cent of young people between the ages of 14 and 24 are unemployed.
Another problem in contemporary Gabon that needed urgent remedying was the rampant corruption that has plagued the Bongo dynasty since it seized power in 1967. Back in 2007, a French financial police investigation revealed that the Bongo family owned 39 properties, 70 bank accounts and other assets in France. Last year, French authorities charged 9 members of the 54-member clan with financial crimes.
It is noteworthy that in addition to removing President Ali Bongo from power, the military detained his son Noureddin Bongo and his wife Sylvia Bongo, as well as several of his advisers from the presidential administration, on charges of money laundering and document forgery, while manipulating the president’s ailing condition, who is suffering from the effects of a stroke.
During searches of their homes on the day of the coup, which were widely broadcast on State television (indicating that the coup had been prepared in advance), trunks, suitcases and bags full of bundles of banknotes were found in their possession.
The local opposition also has serious grievances against the deprived Ali Bongo, having twice accused him of rigging the presidential elections in 2009 and 2016, and mass protests organised by the opposition have been violently repressed by the authorities.
The Western reaction to the coup has been generally restrained. Although there was widespread condemnation, but unlike in Niger, when, under pressure from France and the United States, the countries of the Economic Community of West African States demanded that the rebels restore constitutional order, threatening otherwise to use force against them, this was not the case in Gabon. Nor was it accompanied by the waving of Russian tricolours at the French embassy and anti-French demonstrations demanding the withdrawal of the French military contingent based at the Libreville military base.
France responded to the news of the coup in Gabon by demanding respect for the election results and announcing the suspension of military co-operation with the country. However, according to the French Minister of the Armed Forces, Sébastien Lecornu on 9 September, after the “clarification of the political situation”, cooperation began to be gradually restored.
It should be borne in mind here that France has serious economic interests in Gabon. At least 80 French companies operate in the country in the mining and oil industries. After South Africa, Gabon is the world’s second largest producer of manganese, and France obtains 80 per cent of the metal it consumes from Gabon
Washington, for its part, announced the cessation of military aid and the suspension of some economic support programmes, in particular the duty-free admission of Gabonese goods to the American market, but promised to continue to provide humanitarian aid and assistance in the development of health and education.
In Beijing, the ouster of President Ali Bongo has caused very serious concern, according to the Canadian publication Archyworldys, because it has jeopardised the project to establish a Chinese naval base in Gabon near the town of Port-Gentil, on the island of Manji, which was agreed during Ali Bongo’s visit to Beijing in April this year.
To corroborate this information, the French publication Africa Intelligence notes that since this visit by Ali Bongo, relations between the two countries have been reclassified from a “comprehensive partnership” to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, which may indicate that they have become co-operative in the military and security fields.
Even as the agreement was being drafted in March 2022, the then head of the US military’s African Military Command, General Stephen Townsend, speaking in the US House of Representatives, warned that the presence of Chinese warships in the Gulf of Guinea would pose a serious threat to US national security. In addition to Gabon, it should be noted that at that time Beijing was also negotiating the establishment of a naval base with the president of neighbouring Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who, however, Washington managed to dissuade from such a step.
Gabon has thus found itself at the epicentre of a geopolitical confrontation between two of the world’s leading players, which will undoubtedly affect the course of its future development.
On assuming the presidency, during his swearing-in as President of Gabon for a transitional period, General Nguema promised in his inaugural speech to reorganise the organs of state power to make them more democratic, to take measures to combat corruption and to return power to the people after the end of the transitional period through “free, transparent and credible elections”.
He also formed a new parliament, appointing 98 members of the National Assembly and 70 senators by decree. They included representatives of opposition parties, civil society organisations and trade unions, as well as supporters of the former regime.
Given that one of the most pressing problems in Gabon today is rampant corruption, two weeks after the coup the new head of state announced the creation of a commission to review the public procurement system for corruption. The results of investigations into the corruption activities of the deposed president’s wife and son, as well as six high-ranking officials of his administration, accused of “betrayal of national institutions, embezzlement of public funds and financial scams of international proportions”, will show what this will lead to in practice.
It is noteworthy that one of Gabon’s opposition leaders, Raymond Ndong Sima, an economist by training in France, was placed at the head of the new Gabonese government. He served as prime minister from 2012 to 2014, but then resigned and ran for president in the 2016 elections. As part of a coalition of opposition parties, he ran in the 2023 elections.
Speaking at a press conference in late September, the new Prime Minister outlined a plan to launch a “national dialogue” next year on the way forward, which he said would pave the way for the drafting of a new constitution. The dialogue would be based on a summary of what Gabon’s citizens – men and women, old and young, urban and rural – say about how they think life should be structured under the new conditions. The Prime Minister hopes to submit such a document to the Head of State by the end of January next year in order to prepare for the holding of the “national dialogue” between April and June.
In mid-November, the military authorities announced that elections would tentatively be held in August 2025. They will be preceded by a referendum on the adoption of a new constitution in December 2024. The final timetable for the country’s transition to a civilian form of government will be approved during a “national dialogue” next April, chaired by Archbishop Libreville.
The London-based African Business magazine expresses doubts that the 30 August coup will break new ground in this Central African state notorious for unprecedented corruption. In particular, they believe that it is merely a reshuffle of forces within the country’s ruling political and business elite, the core of which is still the Bongo clan, which, except for cosmetic reforms, cannot lead to serious changes in social and political life, especially in the area of social relations.
We should not expect fundamental changes in the sphere of foreign policy either. But it is quite possible that it will acquire a more diversified character through the development of relations with states interested in the mineral wealth of the “pearl” in the crown of the French neo-colonial empire, such as Turkey or India.
Regardless of who will be at the helm in Gabon, Beijing will do its utmost to strengthen relations with this state, based on its strategy of “diversifying imports of oil and other mineral resources and strengthening relations with small African countries”. It should be borne in mind that, according to the IMF, China has now become Gabon’s largest trading partner, with a turnover of $2.9 billion, 84 per cent of which comes from Gabon’s exports to China. In 2022, Gabon exported to China more than half of its oil production and 22 per cent of the manganese ore China consumes to produce electric vehicles.
France will continue to have a major influence on the processes taking place in the country. According to Africa Intelligence, a few days after the coup, General Nguema made it clear to the French authorities that he intends to further develop active relations with Paris. In particular, during a meeting on the eve of his inauguration on 4 September with the French ambassador, he assured the latter that Paris’ interests would be preserved. Apparently, the metaphor of the father of the nation, Omar Bongo, that “Gabon without France is like a car without a driver, and France without Gabon is like a car without fuel” has been etched in his memory for a long time.
Viktor GONCHAROV, african expert, candidate of sciences in economics, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.