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Gabon: Military seizes power after reelection of Ali Bongo

Published August 30, 2023last updated August 30, 2023

A group of military officers in Gabon said they had dissolved state institutions and placed President Bongo under house arrest. The coup leaders have named Oligui Nguema as interim president.

A man wearing a Gabonise flag hugs a soldier on the street of Port Gentil as others smile
Some residents in the capital were pictured celebrating after the military took powerImage: Desirey Minkoh/Afrikimages/IMAGO

A group of high-ranking military officers in Gabon appeared on TV on Wednesday to announce the nullification of the country's recent election results, citing a lack of credibility. 

Gunfire rang out in the center of the capital, Libreville shortly after the central African country's election committee declared early Wednesday morning that 64-year-old President Ali Bongo had won the election with 64.27% of the vote.

Later, the coup leaders declared the head of the Republican Guard, General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema as the "transitional president." TV images showed Nguema being carried triumphantly by hordes of soldiers, to chants of "Oligui president."

President placed under house arrest

The coup leaders later said Bongo had been placed under house arrest for "treason," while other government figures had been detained on various charges.

"President Ali Bongo is under house arrest, surrounded by his family and doctors," military officers said in a statement read out on state TV.

Bongo's son, Noureddin Bongo Valentin, who was also a close adviser to the president, was among those arrested.

Army stages coup in Gabon

Bongo appeared in a video posted on social media saying: "I'm sending a message to all friends that we have all over the world to tell them to make noise for... the people here who arrested me and my family."

"I'm at the residence and nothing is happening, I don't know what's going on, I'm calling (on) you to make noise," the 64-year-old president said.

All institutions dissolved

"In the name of the Gabonese people ... we have decided to defend the peace by putting an end to the current regime," the officers said in the pre-dawn address.

The group on TV included a dozen army colonels, members of the elite Republican Guard, regular soldiers and other members of police and security forces.

Claiming to represent all of Gabon's security and defense forces, the officers declared the dissolution of "all the institutions of the republic."

They cited "irresponsible, unpredictable governance" leading to a deteriorating social climate as the reason for their intervention, aiming to restore peace by ending the current regime.

The group also announced that the "borders are closed until further notice."

Tensions high since election

Tensions have escalated following Saturday's election, where Bongo aimed to continue his family's 55-year rule amid opposition calls for change in the resource-rich but impoverished nation. 

Concerns about the vote's transparency grew due to the absence of international observers, suspension of foreign broadcasts, and a nationwide internet blackout and curfew imposed by authorities.

There was no immediate comment from the government.

In 2019, soldiers declared on the state radio that they had "formed a national restoration council" to oust President Ali Bongo.

The coup attempt lasted less than a week after military forces stormed the station with eight plotters arrested and two killed. 

The latest developments in Gabon come almost a month after mutinous troops in Niger overthrew the democratically elected government.

How has the world reacted?

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he "firmly" condemned the coup attempt and reiterated "his strong opposition to military coups," according to a spokesperson.

Condemnation also came from the African Union, saying the takeover was a violation of its charter.

The German government also criticized the coup, while noting that there were legitimate concerns over the election.

"It is not up to the military to intervene by force in the political process. Gabonese people must be able to autonomously and freely decide their future," Germany's Foreign Ministry said.

Britain ackowledged concerns surrounding the recent elections there but also condemned the "unconstitutional" coup.

"The UK condemns the unconstitutional military takeover of power in Gabon and calls for the restoration of constitutional government. We acknowledge concerns raised regarding the recent electoral process, including restrictions on media freedom," Britain's foreign ministry said in a statement.

France, the West African country's former colonizer, said on Wednesday it was following events "with great attention." A government spokesperson later said that France condemns the ongoing coup.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told ambassadors in Paris that French diplomats had had to contend with a series of crises, including Ukraine, Sudan and Niger.

French mining company Eramet also temporarily halted its operations in the country in response, which brought down its shares by nearly 5%. The company has large manganese operations in Gabon.

Russia also responded, with the Kremlin saying it was "very concerned" about the situation in Gabon.

Meanwhile, Beijing called upon "all sides" to guarantee President Ali Bongo's safety.

President Ali Bongo casting his vote on August 26
President Ali Bongo was last seen casting his vote in the recent election, which had been widely condemned after he brought in last-minute rule changesImage: Gerauds Wilfried Obangome/REUTERS

"China is closely following the developing situation in Gabon," Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said. "We call on all sides in Gabon to proceed from the basic interests of the country and the people, resolve differences through dialogue, [and] restore normal order as soon as possible."

Bongo family has been 'subverting' democracy for years, analyst tells DW

Leonard Mbulle-Nziege, a political economist and doctoral student at the University of Cape Town, told DW that the Bongo family has undermined democracy during its more than five decades in power.

"Gabon is what you would call an electoral authoritarian regime," Mbulle-Nziege said.

"Even though multi-party elections are carried out on a regular basis, that is every seven years, the institutions of democracy, the rule of law have all been subverted by the rule of the Bongo family."

He also said that the failure to respond significantly to other recent coups in Africa, most recently Niger, meant Gabon's military has been able to take advantage of the situation.

But unlike in Niger, "Russia has very little influence" in Gabon.

Journalist calls election 'unfair and absurd'

Gabonese journalist Jocksy Ondo Louemba called last Saturday's election "unfair and absurd."

He told DW the success of the coup relied on deep dissatisfaction among the military, adding that toppling the regime would have failed if it did not have widespread support.

Louemba explained that while former President Omar Bongo had "bought off political opponents," his son, current President Ali Bongo, was "against dialogue."

"He thought he could achieve everything with violence and the police," Louemba told DW.

ab, ss/sms (AFP, Reuters)