Everything we know so far about the coup in Gabon

The latest African country and former French colony to have its democracy upended

For the eighth time in three years, a coup d’état has toppled a civilian administration in west and central Africa. On Wednesday, August 30, military officers in Gabon forcefully ousted Ali Bongo Ondimba as the country’s president, after 14 years in power. Occurring shortly after Bongo was declared as the winner of the recent general election, around a dozen military personnel appeared on national television to announce the end of the existing administration.

The military spokesperson stated that he was speaking on behalf of the Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions (CTRI), and the committee “has decided to defend peace by putting an end to the regime in place.” He went on to add that the election results that declared Ali Bongo the returning president had been voided, placing him and his son, Noureddin Bongo Valentin, under arrest and home detention. Several of Bongo’s aides have also been arrested. According to the spokesperson, the arrested are facing charges from treason and embezzlement to corruption and drug trafficking.

Within hours of the coup announcement, AFP news agency aired a video of the Ali Bongo asking his “friends” to “make noise” and come to his aid, claiming that his family were away from him and scattered around. “I don’t know what is going on,” he said in the video. Instead of gravitating to Bongo’s trepidation, many citizens in Gabon poured out to the streets in jubilation of his ousting, a show of how deeply unpopular the president had become.

In 2009, Ali Bongo was elected into office following the passing of his father, Omar Bongo, who ruled Gabon for 40 years. During the older Bongo’s autocratic rule, Ali served in various capacities in his father’s administration, as the minister of foreign affairs, deputy in the national assembly, and minister of state. It was widely believed that Ali would eventually succeed his father, both his entry into power wasn’t without controversy. Due to allegations of fraud by the opposition, the constitutional court of Gabon ordered a recount of the 2009 election results, which still declared Ali Bongo the winner despite continued grumbling by many citizens.

Seen as a hugely important election, after Bongo had served two 7-year terms, independent candidate Albert Ondo Ossa was considered the main opposition candidate to the incumbent seeking a third term. Months before the election, several controversies put Gabon on edge, starting with a handful of proposed reforms from the parliament. Among the reform were the reversal of the adopted 2018 bill, which moved the single-round presidential election to a two-round ballot, and a reduction of presidential terms to 5 years. In April, these constitutional changes were adopted, along with the abolition of re-election limits, allowing Bongo and many politicians to essentially remain in administrative office for life.

Regardless, Albert Ondo’s candidacy reportedly picked up steam, gaining the support of a multi-party opposition coalition. On the day of the elections, it was reported that foreign media and international observers were prevented from entering Gabon, voting at many polls were delayed, which impacted the percentage of registered voters that actually voted, and ballot papers carried the names of candidates who had already dropped out of the race in support of Albert Ondo.

After voting took place on Saturday, the government restricted internet access and imposed a curfew, stating that there were measures against the spread of false news and potential violence. In the dead of night, at 3:30AM local time, the results of the election were announced, declaring Ali Bongo the winner with over 60% of the vote. Shortly after, mutinous soldiers, led by Brice Oligui Nguema, commander of the republican guard, took over the presidential palace, placing Ali Bongo under arrest before making their announcement later that day.

Gabon joins Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, and several other African countries and former French colonies that have slid into military rule via coups. The celebration of the coup by Gabonese citizens is a reaction to decades of being lorded over by a family and select group of elites, with Omar Bongo keeping the country in a one-party system until 1991, and his son keeping the hegemony going even as oppositions have sprang up. Gabon, a mainly producing and export country, is currently beset by high levels of poverty, with a reported 40% unemployment rate for people between ages 18 and 40.

The Bongo family has been repeatedly accused of embezzling and hoarding public funds, with the Pandora Papers fingering Ali Bongo as one of the many African leaders with wealth in offshore tax havens. On social media, a viral tweet shows an alleged video of bags of hard currency in the presidential palace. Many Gabonese hope that the coup will portend the change of the country’s fortunes. The Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions (CTRI) has announced Brice Oligui as the president of the transitional council, perhaps a sign that the new junta already has eyes towards a true democracy in the near future.

[Featured Image Credit: Al Jazeera]