Gabon President Ali Bongo Under House Arrest As Military Takes Over Power

People are celebrating in support of the military coup in the street of Libreville, Gabon on August 30, 2023. A dozen of mutinous soldiers appeared on Gabonese national television, announcing the cancellation of recent election results and the dissolution of all the institutions of the republic. Wednesday’s announcement came after President Ali Bongo Ondimba, 64 was re-elected for a third term in an election the opposition described as a fraud orchestrated by the ruling party.

The Bongo family, one of Africa’s most powerful dynasties, has been in power since 1967. The president has confirmed he is under house arrest and called for help, urging citizens to make noise. There have been scenes of celebration in the Gabonese capital, Libreville since the military takeover.

The Commonwealth has voiced fears about the military coup in Gabon. Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Patricia Scotland said the situation was deeply concerning, adding that the Commonwealth was monitoring the situation closely. “The Commonwealth Charter is clear that member states must uphold the rule of law and the principles of democracy at all times,” Patricia Scotland stated.

Military officers in Gabon say they have taken power and put the president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, under house arrest, as the country becomes the latest in Africa to suffer an attempted coup, only weeks after mutinous troops seized power in Niger Republic.

A group of military personnel appeared on state television to announce they were seizing power to overturn the results of a presidential election, seeking to remove a president whose family has held power for nearly 56 years. The officers introduced themselves as members of the Committee of Transition and the Restoration of Institutions.

If successful, the coup would be the eighth in west and central Africa since 2020. The most recent one, in Niger, was in July, while the military has also seized power in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Chad. In a video apparently from detention in his residence, Bongo Ondimba called on people to make noise to support him.

Crowds instead took to the streets of the capital and sang the national anthem to celebrate the coup attempt against a dynasty accused of getting rich on the country’s resources and wealth while many of its citizens struggle in poverty.

The officers said they represented all Gabonese security and defence forces and announced the election results were cancelled, all borders were closed until further notice and state institutions dissolved.

According to their words; “Today the country is undergoing a severe institutional, political, economic, and social crisis,” the officers said in a statement, saying the 26 August election lacked transparency and credibility. “In the name of the Gabonese people … we have decided to defend the peace by putting an end to the current regime.”

A Gabon army officer, Brice Oligui Nguema, told French newspaper Le Monde that military generals would meet on Wednesday to decide who would lead a transition.

The coup attempt came hours after Bongo, 64, was declared winner of an election marred by fears of violence. He was last seen in public casting his vote on Saturday.

Gabon is a member of the Opec oil cartel, with a production of 181,000 barrels of crude a day, making it the eighth-largest producer of oil in sub-Saharan Africa. It is home to more than 2 million people, and is slightly smaller than the US state of Colorado.

Unlike Niger and two other west African countries run by military juntas, Gabon has not been afflicted by jihadi violence and had been seen as relatively stable. But nearly 40% of Gabonese aged 15-24 were out of work in 2020, according to the World Bank.

The political demise of Bongo fits a pattern of coups in French-speaking Africa in recent years. The French-educated Bongo met the French president, Emmanuel Macron, in Paris in late June and shared photos of them shaking hands.

The French prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, said France, Gabon’s former colonial ruler, was following the situation closely. 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.

Before Wednesday’s dramatic announcement, Bongo’s spell in office was marked by disputed elections and a stroke that spurred rumours about his fitness for office and fuelled a minor attempted coup.

Niger and other Sahel countries have been fighting Islamist insurgencies that have eroded faith in democratic governments. Gabon, which lies further south on the Atlantic coast, is not facing the same challenges, but a coup would suggest another sign of democratic backsliding in a volatile region.

Viviane Mbou, a shopkeeper, offered the soldiers juice, which they declined. And Jordy Dikaba, a young man walking with his friends on a street lined with armoured policemen, said: “Long live our army.”

The French mining company Eramet said it was ceasing all operations in Gabon, and was implementing procedures to ensure the safety of its staff and facilities. The company’s subsidiaries in Gabon operate the world’s largest manganese mine and a rail transport company.

The private intelligence firm Ambrey said all operations at Gabon’s main port in Libreville had been halted, with authorities refusing to grant permission for vessels to leave.

One morning flight at Libreville’s Léon-Mba international airport had already been delayed early on Wednesday morning. A man who answered a number listed for the airport told Associated Press that flights were cancelled on Wednesday.

The coup attempt came about a month after mutinous soldiers in Niger seized power from the democratically elected government, and is the latest in a series of coups that have challenged governments with ties to France.

Bongo, in his annual Independence Day speech on 17 August, said: “While our continent has been shaken in recent weeks by violent crises, rest assured that I will never allow you and our country, Gabon, to be hostages to attempts at destabilisation. Never.”

In his speech, Bongo acknowledged the widespread frustration over rising costs of living, and listed measures his government was taking to contain fuel prices, make education more affordable, and stabilise the price of baguettes.

The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, asked about Gabon on Wednesday, said European ministers would discuss the situation this week. “If this is confirmed, it’s another military coup, which increases instability in the whole region,” he said.

Out of the 486 attempted or successful military coups carried globally since 1950, Africa accounts for the largest number with 214, of which at least 106 have been successful. Based on data compiled by American researchers Jonathan M Powell and Clayton L Thyne, at least 45 of the 54 nations across the African continent have experienced at least a single coup attempt since 1950.

Assala Energy says its oil production in Gabon has been unaffected by the military coup in the country. “We can confirm that all our personnel are safe, our operations continue as usual and our production is not affected,” a company spokesperson said. Gabon produces about 200,000 barrels a day (bpd) of crude oil, making it the second-smallest OPEC producer.

Speaking to the French newspaper Le Monde, coup leader Brice Oligui Nguema says the president will enjoy all his rights after the military announced it has placed him under house arrest. He is a Gabonese head of state. He is retired. He enjoys all his rights. He is a normal Gabonese, like everyone else,” Nguema said.

However, Nguema confirm that he will not declare himself the new president of the West African country. According to his words; “I do not declare myself yet. I do not envisage anything for the moment,” he said.

“This is a debate that we are going to have with all the generals. We will meet at 2pm this afternoon. It will be about reaching a consensus. Everyone will put forward ideas, and the best ones will be chosen as well as the name of the person who will lead the transition,” he added.

British maritime security company Ambrey said port operations in Libreville had stopped and no vessels had entered or departed from the port since the announcement of the coup. Ambrey further stated that movements in and out of Gabon have been closed down following an early morning announcement by military officials.

Howeevr, Russia has expressed concern about the situation in Gabon. “Moscow has received with concern reports of a sharp deterioration in the internal situation in the friendly African country. We continue to closely monitor the development of the situation and hope for its speedy stabilisation,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters.

Political analyst Adama Gaye says the coup in Gabon does not come as a surprise. “The Bongo era is over. Ali Bongo was no longer in the hearts of the population in Gabon. He was not accepted by the opposition, who were very strong this time around,” Gaye told Al Jazeera from Germany.

“There was also bickering between Ali Bongo and France to the point where, two days ago on national television, a speaker said there was a coup attempt being masterminded by Emmanuel Macron and the opposition,” he said.

“He [Bongo] was trying to create the condition for him to clamp down on the opposition and to fabricate another victory for himself in another rigged election. But this time around, the military realized that this was too far-fetched and they had to act, and that is what they did,” Gaye added.

However, French government spokesman Olivier Veran says Paris condemns the coup in Gabon and wants the election result to be respected. Earlier, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said France is following events in Gabon with the greatest attention.

On Monday, President Emmanuel Macron denounced what he called an epidemic of coups in recent years in French-speaking Africa, from Mali and Burkina Faso to Guinea and most recently Niger. Paris maintains a military presence in many of its former colonial territories, including Gabon, where it has 370 soldiers permanently deployed some in the capital, Libreville, according to the French Ministry of the Armed Forces website.

However, Gabon’s coup leaders say President Ali Bongo Ondimba is under house arrest and one of his sons has been arrested for treason. “President Ali Bongo is under house arrest, surrounded by his family and doctors,” they said in a statement read out on state TV.

Ali Bongo’s son, Bongo Valentin, his chief of staff Ian Ghislain Ngoulou as well as his deputy, two other presidential advisers and the two top officials in the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) have been arrested for treason, a military leader said. They are accused of treason, embezzlement, corruption and falsifying the president’s signature, among other allegations, he said.

Austine Ikeru
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