By Ian Juma and Kimani Njenga
On August 30th, shortly after the Gabonese election commission declared President Ali Bongo Ondimba’s third-term victory, a group of elite presidential guard officers in Gabon seized power and arrested the president at his palace. They later appointed General Brice Oligui Nguema as the leader of the transitional government. The election had already been tainted by reports of irregularities, and this military coup is the latest in a series of such takeovers across Africa, threatening regional stability and security.
The situation remains precarious, but it seems the officers are strengthening their control over the country. If they successfully remove President Ali Bongo from power, it will mark the end of his family’s dynastic rule in Gabon, spanning over five decades. However, the intentions of the coup leaders after solidifying their authority remain unclear, with vague plans for a transition circulating amidst international condemnations and calls for a return to civilian governance. The coup instigators have established a body called the Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions (CTRI). In a video address, they nullified the election results, suspended all government functions, and shut the country’s borders. General Brice Oligui Nguema, the group’s leader, assumed leadership of the transitional government. He has been in charge of Gabon’s Republican Guard, responsible for protecting high-ranking officials, since 2019.
Gunfire was reported near the palace shortly after the announcement, and the president later appeared in a video, urging his supporters to protest. Currently, the country, including the capital Libreville, appears relatively calm as the military junta consolidates control, with some citizens expressing support for the coup. A curfew has been imposed, and foreign media outlets banned by President Bongo’s government during the recent election have been reinstated. If the coup succeeds, it will mark the end of 55 years of Bongo family rule, starting with Ali Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo, who governed Gabon from 1967 until his death in 2009, with Ali Bongo taking office the same year.
The 2009 election, Ali Bongo’s re-election in 2016, and his most recent victory have all been marred by significant irregularities. In the most recent election, major opposition parties rallied behind a single candidate, former Education Minister Albert Ondo Ossa, who officially garnered 31 percent of the vote. The government faced criticism for changing electoral rules in the month leading up to the election and restricting information flow by cutting off major internet service providers around the event.
Although Gabonese citizens strongly support democracy, many believe that elections do not effectively remove leaders who fail to meet expectations. In addition to their dissatisfaction with unfair elections and dynastic rule, Gabonese citizens experience widespread poverty, despite the country’s abundant natural resources in timber, oil, and manganese, which give Gabon one of the highest per-capita GDPs in mainland sub-Saharan Africa. The coup leaders may exploit this frustration to gain support, assuming they maintain control. However, given the historical self-enrichment of the president and his inner circle through their positions of power, it is likely that the military junta will continue this pattern at the expense of ordinary citizens.
While the international community has limited influence to compel the military officers to restore civilian rule, diplomatic means, incentives, and disincentives should be employed to push for a short and transparent transitional period. Furthermore, international support should prioritize the reform of Gabon’s weak government institutions, which have historically favored the elite. If the coup succeeds and a transition takes place, the international community should actively engage not only with the military officers and President Ali Bongo and his inner circle but also with opposition political parties, religious leaders, and other civil society figures. To establish a well-functioning democracy, the Gabonese will require assistance in strengthening independent media and facilitating dialogue among all segments of Gabonese society, including those outside the traditional elite, regarding the future of their nation.