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Africa Weekly #78 | Coup in Gabon

  NIAS Africa Team

Africa Weekly #79 Vol. 2, No.34
5 September, 2023

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. 

30 August-5 September
Jerry Franklin, Ryan Marcus, Nithyashree RB, Anu Maria Joseph, Sneha Surendran and Prerana P

20 people killed in SAF air strike
On 4 September, at least 20 people were killed in an army air strike in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. The attack happened in the Alakla al-Qubba neighbourhood of southwest Khartoum. Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have been fighting since April. According to the UN, more than thousands have been killed and nearly 2.3 million have been displaced; more than half a million have taken shelter in neighbouring countries of Chad and South Sudan. Currently, RSF controls large swathes of Khartoum and its twin cities of Omdurman and Bahri. SAF has been carrying out frequent artillery and air attacks to dislodge RSF. Clashes have additionally spread to the western Darfur region which has been grappling with decades of ethnic violence. (“Sudan conflict: Air strike on Khartoum kills at least 20,” BBC, 4 September 2023)

Hundreds injured in a clash between rival Eritrean groups in Israel
On 2 September Al Jazeera reported that more than 100 people were injured in Israel’s city of Tel Aviv during a clash between a rival group of protesters from Eritrea. The clashes erupted between the anti-government and pro-government factions of Eritrean asylum seekers. Israeli police fired warning shots in the air to disperse the protesters; at least 39 suspects who assaulted police were arrested. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated: “We want harsh measures against the rioters, including the immediate deportation of those who took part.” President Isaias Afwerki has ruled Eritrea since 1991 and the country never had elections. Political parties are banned and freedom of expression and the press are restricted in the country. Nearly 20,000 Eritreans are residing in Israel. (“Dozens of people injured in clashes between rival Eritrean groups in Israel,” Al Jazeera, 2 September 2023)

No evidence of arms shipment to Russia following inquiry, says President Ramaphosa
On 4 September, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said that there is no clear evidence for the claims that South Africa supplying weapons to Russia. The announcement came following the US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety claimed that the Russian ship Lady R was seen loading arms and ammunition from the naval base in Cape Town in December 2022. An independent inquiry by the South African government found that the Russian ship delivered armaments ordered by the National Defence Force in 2018. Ramaphosa stated: “When all matters are considered, none of the allegations made about the supply of weapons to Russia have been proven to be true; None of the persons who made these allegations could provide any evidence to support the claims that had been levelled against our country.” (“South Africa says no evidence of arms shipment to Russia following inquiry,” Al Jazeera, 4 September 2023)

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit
On 5 September, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen began her visit to Eswatini, Taipei’s last African ally. Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, is the last monarch in Africa. Eswatini’s Prime Minister Cleopas Sipho Dlamini welcomed Tsai while they marked 55 years of bilateral relations. Since 2016, China has been pressuring countries that have bilateral relationships with Taiwan to switch their recognition to China. Taiwan had diplomatic losses with nine countries owing to Chinese efforts. (“Taiwan’s President Tsai begins to visit Eswatini, the last ally in Africa,” Al Jazeera, 5 September 2023)

AU suspension following the coup
On 31 August, the African Union suspended Gabon following the military coup on 30 August. AU’s Peace and Security Council stated: “Strongly condemns the military takeover of power in the Republic of Gabon” and has decided “to immediately suspend the participation of Gabon in all activities of the AU, its organs and institutions.” (“African Union suspends Gabon’s membership after military coup,” Al Jazeera, 31 August 2023)

Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema sworn in as the head of the state
On 4 September, Gabon’s coup leader General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema was sworn in as the head of the state. Addressing his new position, Oligui said that the military has seized power peacefully and will return it to the people through free, transparent and credible elections. He stated: “With the new government, made up of experienced people, we’re going to give everyone a chance to hope.” However, there is a popular rhetoric raising that Oligui belongs to the same Bongo family and the coup is merely a “place revolution,” replacing one Bongo with another. (“Gabon coup leader Nguema sworn in as transitional head of state,” Al Jazeera, 4 September 2023)

Expels French ambassador
On 31 August, the military leaders in Niger ordered the expulsion of France’s ambassador to the country. The visas of French Ambassador Sylvain Itte and his family have been cancelled; the police have been ordered to expel the envoy. The expulsion order comes following the military leaders calling France’s actions “contrary to the interests of Niger.” (“Niger’s military rulers order police to expel French ambassador,” Al Jazeera, 31 August 2023)

Macron criticized for backing President Bazom
On 1 September, Niger’s military leaders accused France of interfering in the country’s internal matters. They accused French President Emmanuel Macron of “perpetuating a neocolonial operation against the Nigerien people.” Colonel Amadou Abdramane stated that Macron’s comments “constitute further blatant interference in Niger’s domestic affairs.” The development comes after Macron backed ECOWAS’ threat of military action against the coup by stating that he “supports [ECOWAS’s] diplomatic action and, when it so decides, [its] military action.” (“Niger’s military government slams Macron for backing President Bazoum,” Al Jazeera, 1 September 2023)

Russia vetoes at UNSC on the proposal to extend sanctions and monitoring
On 31 August, Russia vetoed the presence of a UN experts’ team in Mali who had accused foreign fighters in Mali, referring to Russia's Wagner group’s involvement in widespread atrocities in the country. Thirteen of the UNSC’s 15 members backed the proposal to extend sanctions and the continued presence of UN experts. Meanwhile, China abstained from voting. Russia’s UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia stated: “It is fundamentally important that UN Security Council sanctions deal purely with that issue and not be used as a means of foreign influence on Mali, and that is something that the panel of experts of the Security Council has been involved in.” (“Russia vetoes UN resolution to extend sanctions, monitoring in Mali,” Al Jazeera, 31 August 2023)

53 soldiers killed in rebel attack
On 5 September, Al Jazeera reported that at least 53 security forces of Burkina Faso were killed during a clash with rebel fighters. The clashes occurred in the Koumbri village of the Tatenga province on 4 September. The Burkinabe army stated: “This act of extreme cowardice will not go unpunished. Every effort is being made to disable the remaining terrorist elements on the run.” It is unclear which group carried out the attack. However, militants linked to Islamic State and al-Qaeda have been carrying out frequent attacks in the country. According to the Al Jazeera report, the insurgency has killed thousands and displaced more than two million people. (“At least 53 Burkina Faso soldiers, volunteers killed in clashes with rebels,” Al Jazeera, 5 September 2023)

Africa’s first climate summit
On 4 September, the first three-day African Climate Summit began in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. The summit aims to bring together African leaders to create a shared vision of green development and get ready for the COP28 meeting. Climate financing is one of the major agenda of the summit. The UAE has pledged USD 4.5 billion in clean energy investment in the continent; the UK is planning to invest EUR 49 million in managing the impact of climate change and on climate action. Addressing the member countries, Kenyan President William Ruto stated: “Africa holds the key to accelerating decarbonisation of the global economy. We are not just a continent rich in resources. We are a powerhouse of untapped potential, eager to engage and fairly compete in the global markets.” Meanwhile, a coalition of civil society groups urged Ruto to circumvent a Western-led agenda that focuses on carbon markets and other financial tools to redress the climate crisis. (“Billions pledged for green energy as Africa climate talks enter second day,Al Jazeera, 5 September 2023)

About the Authors
Nithyashree RB is a Postgraduate Scholar from Stella Maris College, Chennai. Anu Maria Joseph is a Research Assistant at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. Jerry Franklin is a Postgraduate Scholar from Madras Christian College, Chennai. Ryan Marcus is an Undergraduate Scholar at Kristu Jayanti College, Bangalore. Sneha Surendran is a Postgraduate Scholar at OP Jindal University, Haryana. Prerana P is a Postgraduate Scholar at the Christ (Deemed To Be University), Bangalore.

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