GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 729, 31 August 2023

Gabon: Coup amid a political crisis and contentious election
Nithyashree RB

In the news
On 30 August, Gabon’s senior military officials through national media, Gabon24, announced a coup citing improper elections. 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. 

On 31 August, the head of the presidential guard, General Brice Oligui Nguema, was announced as Gabon’s transitional leader. The same day, the African Union suspended Gabon’s membership.

On 30 August, in response to the coup, 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 US 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 condemned “the ongoing coup attempt as a means to resolve the post-electoral crisis.” 

Issues at large
First, Gabon’s long-standing political crisis. Since Gabon’s independence in 1960, the country has been going through dynastic politics under the Bongo family, rigged elections, French influence, 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. In 1967, Omar Bongo established a single-party regime under the Gabonese Democratic Party (GDP) and was re-elected through fraudulent elections. In 2009, President Ali Bongo’s victory in the presidential elections with 41.73 per cent votes was deemed to be fraudulent and led to clashes between the police and the opposition. During the 2016 presidential elections, Bongo won with 48.23 per cent votes. The results of the election were delayed several times. Bongo was accused of exploiting the results in one of the provinces where according to The Guardian the voter turnout was 99.9 per cent although 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 the 2019 elections, which led to a failed coup attempt. In the 2023 elections, ostensibly Bongo won with 64.27 per cent. 

Second, the Bongo family’s 55-year grip over Gabon. Since 1967, Gabon has been under the Bongo family. Omar Bongo, the founder of the ruling GDP, was the President of Gabon until his death. His son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, took over and has been the President for two consecutive terms. During his tenure of 14 years, despite his successful policies towards rainforest conversation, the economic growth and diversification have 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. 

Third, divided response to the coup. People in the cities of 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. 

Fourth, the 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.”
Fifth, the eighth coup in the region since 2020. 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.

In perspective
First, Gabon has progressed into 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. 

Second, the regional story of coups. Within three years, eight countries in Western and Central Africa have undergone military coups. 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. 

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