A sudden and dramatic power shift has unfolded in Gabon as mutinous soldiers announced their leader of the republican guard as the country’s new leader on August 30th. This development follows the surprising house arrest of President Ali Bongo Ondimba, who had recently been declared the victor in the Saturday election.
In a televised statement on Gabon’s state TV, coup leaders revealed that Gen. Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema had been unanimously designated as the president of a transitional committee tasked with guiding the nation through this period of change. Nguema’s close familial connection as a cousin of Bongo adds an intriguing dimension to this political upheaval. Notably, Oligui has a noteworthy military background, having formerly served as both the head of the republican guard and as a bodyguard to President Omar Bongo, Ali Bongo Ondimba’s late father. He also held the position of head of the Secret Service in 2019.
Ali Bongo Ondimba, who has ruled Gabon since 2009 after succeeding his father, has faced criticism and widespread discontent during his two terms in power. The new leader inherits a nation at a crossroads, where political dissatisfaction and economic challenges loom large.
The streets of Gabon’s capital, Libreville, bore witness to starkly contrasting reactions. While President Bongo released a video from his residence, rallying his supporters, jubilant crowds took to the streets to celebrate the fall of a dynasty that had been accused of enriching themselves at the expense of ordinary citizens.
The Gabon coup leaders promptly extended the existing night-time curfew, restricting movement for Gabonese citizens from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. The prior curfew had spanned from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. This move was accompanied by a call for calm and serenity from Lt Col. Ulrich Manfoumbi, who highlighted the transition’s aim to ensure peace, stability, and dignity for Gabon.
A notable aspect of this power shift is the involvement of the Bongo family. Desire Ename, a journalist with Echos du Nord, a local media outlet, revealed that Oligui Nguema’s association with the family extends back to his role as a bodyguard to President Omar Bongo. He later assumed leadership positions, culminating in his current role as head of the republican guard.
The coup’s timing adds to the complexity of the situation. Ali Bongo Ondimba’s reign had been marked by discontent and accusations of misappropriation of state resources. The World Bank data indicates that nearly 40% of Gabonese citizens aged 15 to 24 were unemployed in 2020. While the country is an OPEC member, its oil wealth remains concentrated within a select group, leading to economic disparities.
Adding to the political landscape, nine members of the Bongo family are under investigation in France, facing charges ranging from embezzlement to money laundering. The family’s alleged association with over $92 million in French properties, including villas in Nice, has further intensified scrutiny.
A spokesperson for the coup leaders has cited President Bongo’s governance as “unpredictable and irresponsible,” claiming it could lead the country into chaos. Subsequent statements have accused individuals close to the president of betraying state institutions and engaging in financial misconduct.
The international community’s response has been swift and varied. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres denounced the coup and urged military leaders to ensure the safety of President Bongo and his family. The African Union Commission similarly condemned the takeover and called for a return to democratic order. Other nations, including Morocco and China, have emphasized dialogue and stability as essential in the face of this evolving situation.
As Gabon navigates this unexpected transition, questions linger about the impact on stability and governance. France and the United States, both with vested interests, have expressed concern while highlighting their roles in monitoring developments. Unlike some neighboring nations that have grappled with military takeovers, Gabon had been seen as relatively stable. However, this coup challenges that perception and raises significant uncertainties about the nation’s future.