A faction of the army overthrew Gabon’s government on Wednesday morning, in another nationalist coup in a former French colony on the continent this year.
By Pedro Aguiar
The coup appears to have the support of the population. Images posted on social media show Gabonese civilians in the streets celebrating alongside convoys of uniformed soldiers. Soldiers are requesting the population to avoid looting and vandalism. As of Wednesday morning, no deaths or injuries had been recorded.
Gabon was ruled by Ali Bongo, who, according to official results, had been re-elected for a fourth presidential term in last Saturday’s (26) elections.
In the final count, announced in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Bongo won 64.27% of the vote, while the second candidate and main opposition leader, Albert Ondo Ossa, won 30.77%. There were no international observers and Internet access and international radio and television broadcasts were cut off during the recount, according to Reuters. The deposed government also tried to impose a curfew, which the population did not respect.
The coup leader, according to the Gabonese press, is General Brice Oligui Nguema, hitherto commander of the Republican Guard, responsible for security for the presidency. Earlier, in a televised speech, Lieutenant Colonel Ulrich Manfoumbi declared: “We, the Committee for the Transition and the Restoration of Institutions, have decided to defend peace and put an end to the regime in place”.
“In the last three elections in Gabon, the government restricted the flow of information for security reasons, but the real reason was to prevent journalists and independent observers from following the count,” said Ghanaian political scientist Michael Amoah, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, in an interview with Al Jazeera TV in English on Wednesday morning.
The military announced the house arrest of the president, who is suspected of embezzling public funds. Hours after, Ali Bongo’s team released a video in which the ousted politician, speaking in English, claimed to be unaware of the regime change. “Nothing is happening. I request you to make noise, a lot of noise,” he said.
Ali is the son of Omar Bongo, one of Gabon’s independence leaders who ruled from 1967 until his death in 2009. He succeeded his father in a hastily organised election and was re-elected in 2016 for a seven-year term. In 2018, he suffered a stroke during a visit to Saudi Arabia and took ten months to return home.
In 2019, the Gabonese military already tried to overthrow him, in a barracking that ended in failure and repression of the rebels.
This is the third military-backed regime change in Francophone Africa in less than a year. In September, officers seized power in Burkina Faso, led by Ibrahim Traoré, who claims the legacy of Burkinabe socialist President Thomas Sankara, assassinated in 1987. And at the end of July, General Abdoulrahmane Tiani overthrew the government in Niger promising to reorient the economy of the country, a major uranium exporter, in favour of the local population.
“This is a Francophone spring,” Michael Amoah told Al Jazeera: “There is an anti-French sentiment as a dominant factor in these processes, from Mali to Burkina Faso, Niger and now Gabon. If you look at the African continent, except for Uganda, which is English-speaking, and Equatorial Guinea, which is Spanish-speaking, all the countries where there are prolonged presidential governments are French-speaking, like Cameroon, Rwanda and Togo, for example. These heads of state remain in power for decades. In Cameroon, the current government has been in power for more than 21 years; in Togo, it is scheduled for a fifth term in 2025, and so on. And the people are tired of this French influence, which covers up corruption and embezzlement of public money”.
The reaction from the Quay d’Orsay, the French foreign ministry, was immediate, condemning the coup and requesting that the election results be “respected”. French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told the press that she was following developments in Gabon “with the utmost attention”.
France maintains a military base in the central African country: Camp Général de Gaulle, near the airport of the capital, Libreville, with an estimated 350 military personnel, according to the Swedish Defence Research Institute.
Gabon has significant oil reserves but little refining capacity. It is one of Africa’s largest oil exporters, having exported $3.61 billion in barrels of crude in 2021, according to OPEC.
French President Emmanuel Macron was in Gabon in March, taking part in a summit on the ‘protection of tropical forests’. On that occasion, he gave a speech in which he claimed that the “era of imperialist interventions” in Africa was over. Months after, he refused to recognise Niger’s new government and suspended financial aid to the country.
“What should happen now in Gabon is for the military to rule in transition until there is time to organise a proper election, in which the electoral commission can independently carry out the scrutiny and count the results correctly,” Amoah predicted.