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NIAS AFRICA STUDIES
Coup in Gabon: Three questions

  Nithyashree RB

On 30 August, Gabon’s senior military officials through national media, Gabon24, announced a coup citing improper elections. The coup leaders announced themselves as members of the Committee of Transition and the Restoration of Institutions. They stated: “Today the country is undergoing a severe institutional, political, economic, and social crisis; In the name of the Gabonese people, we have decided to defend the peace by putting an end to the current regime.” The coup announcement came hours after incumbent President Ali Bongo was declared the winner of presidential elections held on 26 August. The officers informed that all the state institutions such as “the government, the Senate, the National Assembly, the Constitutional Court, the Economic, Social and Environmental Council and the Gabonese Elections Centre” are dissolved. 

The officers stated: “We are therefore forced to admit that the organisation of the general elections of 26 August 2023 did not meet the conditions for a transparent, credible and inclusive ballot so much hoped for by the people of Gabon. Added to this is irresponsible and unpredictable governance, resulting in a continuing deterioration in social cohesion, with the risk of leading the country into chaos. People of Gabon, we are finally on the road to happiness.” 

On 31 August, General Brice Oligui Nguema, the head of the Presidential Guard and a cousin of President Bongo, was announced as Gabon’s transitional leader. He will be formally appointed as the leader of Gabon on 4 September 2023. In an interview with Le Monde, General Nguema said: “Everyone talks about this but no one takes responsibility. So the army decided to turn the page.” The same day, the African Union suspended Gabon’s membership.

On 1 September, the opposition alliance Alternance 2023 led by Albert Ondo Ossa pressured the coup leaders to restore civilian rule. The opposition claimed that it was the rightful winner of the presidential election and urged the coup leaders to recount the votes. 

What are the reasons the coup leaders have justified?
1. Socio-economic and political crisis
Since Gabon’s independence in 1960, the country has been under dynastic rule, amidst rigged elections, French influence, elites, corruption and improper governance. The elites have disproportionately reaped the benefits of the country’s oil and manganese resources resulting in social and economic inequality. Despite being a resource-rich country, the country is unable to properly utilise the resources to initiate sustainable and inclusive growth.

2. Bongo family’s 55-year grip over Gabon
Since 1967, Gabon has been under the Bongo family. Omar Bongo, the founder of the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (GDP), was the President of Gabon until his death. His son, Ali Bongo Ondimba who was the defence minister at that time took over and has been the President for two consecutive terms. During his tenure of 14 years, despite his policies towards rainforest conversation, the economic growth and diversification have only been moderate. World Bank estimates 70.5 per cent of the exports were oil. According to Al Jazeera, one-third of the population lives under the poverty line. 

3. Series of contentious elections. 
President Bongo’s victory in the 2009 presidential elections with 41.73 per cent votes was deemed to be fraudulent and led to clashes between the police and the opposition. Again, in the 2016 presidential elections, Bongo emerged victorious with 48.23 per cent votes. The results of the election were delayed several times. Bongo was accused of exploiting the results in at least one of the provinces where according to The Guardian the voter turnout was 99.9 per cent while the total turnout of the country was just 59 per cent. The election led to clashes between the opposition supporters and the police. Three were shot dead in 2019. In the 2023 elections, ostensibly Bongo won with 64.27 per cent. The internet services were suspended and night curfews were levied. The lack of transparency was stated as one of the reasons for the coup attempt.

What were the responses to the coup?
1. Responses from regional and international actors
On 30 August, in response to the coup attempt, the French government’s spokesperson Olivier Veran stated: “France condemns the military coup that is underway in Gabon and is closely monitoring developments in the country, and France reaffirms its wish that the outcome of the election, once known, be respected.” 

On 30 August, the White House’s national security spokesperson Joh Kirby stated: “It's deeply concerning to us. We will remain a supporter of the people in the region, a supporter of the people of Gabon and their demand for democratic government. We're watching this closely.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ spokesperson said that Guterres “firmly condemns the ongoing coup attempt as a means to resolve the post-electoral crisis.” African Union Commission’s head Moussa Faki Mahamat’s spokesperson stated that he called for the restoration of “democratic constitutional order.”

2. Divided response from the people of Gabon.
People living in Libreville and Port Gentil were seen celebrating the coup and took to the streets to express their support. Meanwhile, the opposition alliance Alternance 2023 of Albert Ondo Ossa condemned the coup. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Ossa stated: “You think you’re saving your country, but then you realize you’re back to square one. It’s embarrassing.” He affirmed that the Bongo family is in power through proxy. Ossa distinguished that the coup was a “palace coup” meaning that it was just a replacement of one Bongo by another. 

What are the implications?
1. Indifferent regional and international actors
Neither France nor any other Western countries have denounced the dynastic rule under the Bongo family. Gabon is a country of lesser interest to the West as there is no jihadist insurgency, unlike the Sahel region. France, which has enjoyed constant influence over the country, refuses to dethrone its ally, Bongo. For regional actors, potential instability in the region is a major concern. Nigerian President and chair of ECOWAS, Bola Tinubu, expressed similar concerns stating that “the seeming autocratic contagion spreading across different regions of our beloved continent.”

2. Increasing number of coups in Africa
Within three years, eight countries in Western and Central Africa have undergone military coups. In July 2023, Niger underwent a coup. Burkina Faso, in 2022, witnessed two coups within eight months. Sudan and Guinea had one coup each in 2021. In 2020 and 2021, Mali had two coups within nine months. Gabon has become the first Central African country to undergo a military coup. The rising number of coups in the coup belt of Africa stresses the distrust towards democratic institutions. The domino effect will make the region unstable and susceptible to several challenges. Regardless, with rising anti-West sentiments and resentment towards external influence, the trend to own up and voice out is becoming prevalent. 

3. Way forward for Gabon
Gabon has progressed into being socially and economically unequal, afflicted with poverty and controlled by the elites under the Bongo rule. In this situation, the question is whether the coup can have positive consequences, by discarding government institutions and lack of cohesion from the opposition. Closed borders and possible sanctions are concerning to an economy that is predominantly dependent on oil trade. 


About the author

Nithyashree RB is a Postgraduate Scholar from Stella Maris College, Chennai.

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