Gabon, a country of over 2 million on the west coast of Central Africa, has seen in the past 24 hours a seemingly complete transfer of control of all government and military institutions from the hands of the Bongo administration (or regime for many) under the 14-year rule of President Ali Bongo to coincidentally another family member of the Bongo lineage, General Brice Oligui Nguema, who had up to this point served under his cousin as the commander of the Gabonese Republican Guard and had prominently led both military forces and directed internal reforms aimed at corruption and state-led embezzlement. This came after Ali had just won a heavily disputed election where polls awarded him the winner with 64% of the vote, with a reportedly 56% voter turnout. Opposition parties called the election a fraud, and in second came opposition candidate Albert Ossa with 30%.
The Republican Guard directly serves the president and his close family as well as other leading officials, meaning this coup d’état came as a surprise to many, likely mostly former president Ali Bongo, who is now under house arrest and “retired”, according to Nguema. Nguema is also the current leader of the military junta’s “Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions,” which is comprised of soldiers and officers, including some from the Republican Guard.
On the streets, it seems largely people have come out to support the soldiers involved in the coup and cheer on military parades; so far, no major protests or lashbacks have unfolded.
A curfew has been put in place between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., but free travel within the country is allowed. “The president of the transition insists on the need to maintain calm and serenity in our beautiful country… At the dawn of a new era, we will guarantee the peace, stability, and dignity of our beloved Gabon,” Lt. Col. Ulrich Manfoumbi said during one of several statements made by junta leaders on state TV.
— OurWarsToday (@ourwarstoday) August 30, 2023
There’s a lot of context for both the Bongo family and, specifically, Nguema, when it comes to influence and control in Gabon. Albert-Bernard (Omar) Bongo first came to power in December 1967 after the death of the former president Leon Mba, who succumbed to cancer after being propped back into power after a coup in 1964. Still heavily French-influenced from their colonial history and only gaining independence in 1960, the country would find itself under the autocratic rule of Omar Bongo, who in particular plundered the country’s oil profits for his own personal gain. He ruled a one-party system that he had declared after taking over, until 1990, when the buildup of social unrest turned into full-on riots against the state, leading to the capitulation of Omar, who would end up creating a multi-party system to satisfy the political diversity and desire for greater representation of Gabon’s citizens that they were pushing for. The unrest also led to the establishing of a number of other important measures like a national senate, decentralization of budgets, free assembly and free press, and the ending of an exit visa requirement. Omar would ride party conflict through the next two decades until his son took over in what opposition parties called an authoritarian drift.
The Bongo family has long ruled over the country in what many supporters of the coup believe was essentially a regime that fixed votes to assure continued electoral victory. Ali had been president for 14 years since 2009; his father, Omar Bongo, had previously served as president of Gabon for almost 42 years from 1967 until he died in 2008. Omar was heavily criticized during his reign for his selfish actions, nepotism, self-enrichment, and putting his family and local elites over the people of Gabon. Additionally, low HDI progress and unsatisfactory medical and infrastructure services led to decades of suffering, including Gabon having one of the world’s highest infant mortality rates by 2009. Ali’s career has seen its own range of criticisms that extend also into human rights abuses, extrajudicial arrests, state violence, and, of course, election disputes and irregularities. Nine of Bongo’s children were also personally indicted in France in 2022 for handling misappropriated funds in the tens of millions of euros range, with the value in France of the assets totaling at least “85 million euros” according to French courts.
The New Leader
General Nguema is also, at the very least, a multi-millionaire in Gabon, although some believe he is even richer. He additionally owns multiple million-dollar properties in the United States. According to a 2020 investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) on the Bongo family’s assets in the United States, Nguema invested in real estate, paying in cash.
“He bought three properties in middle- and working-class neighborhoods in the Maryland suburbs of Hyattsville and Silver Spring, just outside the capital, in 2015 and 2018. The homes were purchased with a total of over $1 million in cash,” the OCCRP report said. When reporters questioned Nguema about these properties, he said it was a private affair. Read more about the Bongo family’s finances here: https://www.occrp.org/en/investigations/gabons-first-family-stashed-cash-in-dc-property
This is also not the first coup attempt by members of the military against now-former president Ali Bongo; a much less successful operation was undertaken in 2019 after a wave of allegations of corruption against the government came forward.
Al Jazeera: “Nguema is one of the most influential and enigmatic figures in the country today. The son of a military officer, he trained at the Royal Military Academy of Meknes, in Morocco. Nguema then served as Bongo’s “aides-de-camp” to a commander in former President Omar Bongo’s Republican Guard until the former Gabonese leader’s death in 2009.
When Omar Bongo’s son, Ali Bongo, rose to power in October 2009, Nguema was sent to Morocco and Senegal for diplomatic missions. A decade later, he took over as head of the guard. The guard, whose military officers are recognizable by their green berets, is responsible for presidential security. As its head, Nguema tried to fortify Gabon’s internal security systems with reforms that were seen as elongating Bongo’s stay in power.
According to local media reports, Nguema also composed a song that included the line, “I would defend my president with honour and loyalty”.”
— OurWarsToday (@ourwarstoday) August 30, 2023
The Reaction and Resources
Supporters of Ali Bongo’s regime in France and elsewhere have condemned the coup and expressed their upset over losing access to Gabon’s military as well as natural resources, mostly in the form of oil and mining. Others, such as China, have called for Bongo’s safety to be guaranteed.
While Gabon is in OPEC, has an oil-based economy that accounts for 60% of national revenue, and has a high per-capita GDP, large swaths of its people are very poor. Nearly 40% of Gabonese ages 15–24 were out of work in 2020, according to the World Bank. A third of the population still lives below the poverty line of $5.50 per day, according to the World Bank.
Largely, this has been attributed by Gabonese and outside observers to foreign and national corporations who are extracting resources with profits in mind, as well as the habitual embezzlement and corruption by elites, politicians, and local officials that has led to much of the nation’s wealth being concentrated with a small part of the population who also have great political influence.
AFP with Le Monde:
“The head of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, said on Wednesday he “strongly condemns” what he described as an attempted coup in Gabon. Faki “is following with great concern the situation in the Gabonese Republic and strongly condemns the attempted coup d’etat in the country as a way of resolving its current post-electoral crisis,” said a statement published on the AU website in French.
In Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy and most populous country, President Bola Tinubu said he was in contact with other African heads over the “contagious autocracy we have seen spread across” the continent. “Power belongs in the hands of Africa’s great people and not in the barrel of a loaded gun,” Tinubu said through his spokesman.
France is following events in Gabon “with the greatest attention”, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said on Wednesday. Government spokesman Olivier Véran said France “condemns the military coup that is underway in Gabon.” He said that France was following events “with a lot of attention” and that it “reiterates its desire to see the results of the election respected,” referring to Saturday’s disputed presidential polls in the West African country.
France has around 400 soldiers permanently deployed in the country for training and military support, including at a base in the capital, and has extensive economic ties to the country in the mining and oil sectors.
China called for Bongo’s safety to be guaranteed. The Kremlin said it was concerned by events in Gabon. “We are deeply concerned about the situation in Gabon. We are closely following what is going on there,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday.
The Commonwealth on Wednesday voiced fears about a military coup, which joined the grouping last year, and said it was monitoring the situation closely. The secretary general Patricia Scotland said the situation was “deeply concerning”, adding: “The Commonwealth Charter is clear that member states must uphold the rule of law and the principles of democracy at all times.”
French mining group Eramet said on Wednesday that it had stopped its activities in Gabon. Eramet said that “for the safety of staff and the security of operations” it had “stopped” work and was following events closely. It employs 8,000 people in the oil- and mineral-rich West African country and its local subsidiary extracts manganese ore – a mineral used in steel-making and batteries – from the Moanda mines, the world’s largest manganese mines.” (Eramet’s stock dropped 14% after the coup
Barons: “Besides oil and mining, Gabon has been able to conserve in some ways its other resources, although lumber and animal trade industries, especially those that are illegal, are poised to destroy natural areas: “Forests cover 88 percent of the surface of Gabon, providing a haven for gorillas, buffalo, panthers, elephants, chimpanzees and other species. The country, which markets itself as the “last Eden”, has become a major advocate for conservation in a region where wildlife is being battered by wars, habitat destruction and the bushmeat trade. In 2002, it set up a network of 13 national parks covering 11 percent of its territory.
A powerful psychoactive root found in Gabonese forests is also used to make a drug that has been touted as a potential healer of heroin and cocaine addiction. The hallucinogenic iboga root has long been used in an ancestral ritual known as “bwiti”, which combines worship of forest spirits with elements of Christianity.
High doses can have effects similar to LSD, mescaline or amphetamines, and cause anxiety, extreme apprehension and hallucinations. But the pill form of the drug, ibogaine, has also been hailed for helping some drug addicts kick their habit.”
Bloomberg: “Manganese is one of the world’s most abundant mined elements, but production is concentrated in a handful of countries including South Africa, Gabon, Australia and China. Eramet said last month that the global market was in a slight surplus in the first half of the year, but there are growing concerns about supply risks surrounding high-purity forms of the metal that are needed by battery-makers. Earlier this year, the European Commission proposed designating battery-grade manganese as a strategic raw material, alongside other metals like copper and nickel that play a key role in the energy transition.
Gabon’s manganese assets are a major source of revenue and employment for the state. Eramet paid more than €132 million ($144 million) in taxes and dividends in 2022 and spent more than €407 million on local purchases and subcontracting. The company directly employed 8,767 people, it said in a report in June.”
Africa News: “Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba is “under house arrest” surrounded by his family and doctors, and one of his sons has been arrested, notably for “high treason”, the military behind a coup d’état announced on Wednesday morning. Bongo “had been arrested”, continued the army colonel, who had read out a communiqué during the night announcing that the military were “putting an end to the regime”.
Noureddin Bongo Valentin, son and close adviser to the head of state, Ian GhislainNgoulou, Mr. Bongo’s chief of staff, Mohamed Ali Saliou, his deputy chief of staff, Abdul Hosseini, another presidential adviser, Jessye Ella Ekogha, special adviser and presidential spokesman, as well as the number one and two members of Mr. Bongo’s all-powerful Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) “are under arrest”. They have been arrested for “high treason against the institutions of the State, massive misappropriation of public funds, organized international financial embezzlement, forgery, falsification of the signature of the President of the Republic, active corruption and drug trafficking”, he added.”
VIDEO: ?? Gabon president under house arrest: coup leaders on state TV
In a statement broadcast on state television, military officers announce that Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba has been put under house arrest. pic.twitter.com/jMMHO4vOaK
— AFP News Agency (@AFP) August 30, 2023
Nguema spoke to Le Monde yesterday: “Cheered on by hundreds of soldiers in the capital, Libreville, General Brice Oligui Nguema, the head of the Republican Guard, has the potential to become the country’s new strongman. He spoke in an exclusive interview with Le Monde.
-Do you see yourself as Gabon’s new head of state?
I am not declaring myself yet, I am not considering anything at the moment. It is a debate we will have with all the generals. We will be meeting at 2 pm [local time]. The aim will be to reach a consensus. Everyone will put forward ideas, and the best ones will be retained, along with the name of the person who will lead the transition.
-Had this coup been prepared for a long time, or was it the proclamation of the August 26 election results, declaring Ali Bongo the winner, that prompted you to act?
You know that in Gabon, there is discontent and, beyond this discontent, there is the illness of the head of state [Ali Bongo suffered a stroke in October 2018 that left him weakened]. Everyone is talking about it, but nobody is taking responsibility. He had no right to serve a third term; the Constitution was disregarded, and the election method, in itself, was not good. So the army has decided to turn the page and take its responsibilities
-What will happen to Ali Bongo?
He is a Gabonese head of state. He is retired and enjoys all his rights. He is a normal Gabonese, like everyone else.”