A ‘coup’ in Gabon: Who, what and why?

Soldiers in Gabon announced the cancellation of recent election results and the dissolution of state institutions.

Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba listens during the 5th mid-year coordination meeting of the African Union, at the United Nations (UN) offices in Gigiri, Nairobi, on July 16, 2023. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)
Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba [File: Simon Maina/AFP]

A group of senior military officers in Gabon on Wednesday said they have seized power in the capital in order to overturn the results of the recent election and remove a leader whose family has held power for almost 56 years.

This came within an hour after President Ali Bongo Ondimba was announced as the winner of the presidential polls, which took place over the weekend.

Here’s what we know so far:

What happened and when?

On Saturday, August 26, Gabon went to the polls for the country’s presidential election.

Early on Wednesday, August 30, ​the country’s national electoral authority announced that Bongo, who had been in power for 14 years, was re-elected for a third term with 64.27 percent of votes cast.

Soon after, a group of mutinous soldiers appeared on state TV saying they were seizing power, cancelling the election results and “putting an end to the current regime”.

Bongo’s main challenger, Albert Ondo Ossa, got 30.77 percent of the vote, the electoral authority said.

Ondo Ossa had denounced “fraud orchestrated by the Bongo camp”, claiming victory ahead of the closure of polls.

Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba (L) looks on as he attends a bilateral meeting with French President at Presidential Palace in Libreville, on March 1, 2023 and Albert Ondo Ossa (R) nominated candidate for the Alternance 2023 opposition grouping in Gabon speaks to the media in Libreville
Gabon’s Ali Bongo Ondimba (L) and Albert Ondo Ossa [File: AFP]

Who is behind the ongoing coup attempt?

The soldiers who seized power said they were speaking on behalf of the “Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions”, and announced the annulment of the election and closure of all borders.

They also announced the dissolution of institutions of state including “the government, the Senate, the National Assembly, the Constitutional Court, the Economic, Social and Environmental Council and the Gabonese Elections Centre”.

One officer read a joint statement on TV channel Gabon 24, while about a dozen others stood silently behind him in military fatigues and berets. They included army colonels, members of the elite Republican Guard, regular soldiers and others, the AFP news agency reported.

The soldier’s statement, which was read out in French, read in part:

“Our beautiful country, Gabon, has always been a haven of peace. Today, the country is going through a serious institutional, political, economic and social crisis.”

“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. May God and the spirits of our ancestors bless Gabon. Honour and loyalty to our homeland.”

This video grab taken from Gabon 24 shows Gabonese soldiers appearing on television on August 30, 2023 announcing they were "putting an end to the current regime" and the cancellation of an election that, according to official results, President Ali Bongo Ondimba won. - During the announcement, AFP journalists heard gunfire ring out in the Gabonese capital, Libreville. While announcing the cancellation of the results one of the soldiers announced the dissolution of "all the institutions of the republic". "We have decided to defend peace by putting an end to the current regime", one of the soldiers said on TV channel Gabon 24, adding that he was speaking on behalf of the "Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions". "To this end, the general elections of 26 August 2023 and the truncated results are cancelled," he added. "All the institutions of the republic are dissolved: the government, the Senate, the National Assembly and the Constitutional Court," he added, announcing the closure of the country's borders "until further notice". Among the soldiers were members of the Republican Guard as well as soldiers of the regular army and police officers. (Photo by - / Gabon 24 / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / GABON 24" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / GABON 24" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS /
A screenshot shows Gabonese soldiers announcing they had seized power in Gabon, August 30, 2023 [Gabon 24 via AFP]

Where did it happen?

The suspected coup took place in Libreville, the capital of Gabon. Loud sounds of gunfire could be heard in the city after the soldiers took charge, the Reuters and AFP news agencies reported.

Al Jazeera correspondents in Dakar and Niamey, both in neighbouring West Africa, said there were reports of people coming out to celebrate in the streets of the capital.

Gabon is a small state in Central Africa that has been ruled by the same family for more than 55 years since its independence from France in 1960.

It is one of the richest countries in Africa in terms of GDP per capita, thanks largely to oil revenues and the small population of 2.3 million.

In the 1970s, the country discovered abundant oil reserves offshore, allowing it to build a strong middle class. Oil accounts for 60 percent of the country’s revenues.

But a third of the population still lives below the poverty line of $5.50 per day, according to the World Bank.


Where is the President Ali Bongo Ondimba?

Gabon’s coup leaders have said Bongo 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.

Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque reporting from Dakar, Senegal said there is heavy presence of security forces on the streets of Libreville.

“The presidential guards seem to have taken control of the presidential palace and they have taken key positions around the National Assembly and the Senate,” he said.

Bongo, 64, took over when his father Omar died in 2009 after nearly 42 years in power. Bongo senior, who took office in 1967, had the reputation of a kleptocrat – one of the richest men in the world, with a fortune derived from Gabon’s oil wealth.

In October 2018, President Bongo suffered a stroke that sidelined him for 10 months. The episode stoked claims he was unfit to rule and fuelled a minor attempted coup.

How similar is the ongoing coup attempt to other coups in the region?

If successful, the coup would represent the eighth in West and Central Africa since 2020. Coups in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger have undermined democratic progress in recent years.

“Political analysts believe that it’s a trend that’s emerging in Africa… [and] unless leaders in Africa sit up and listen to the people, certainly we will have an epidemic on our hands,” Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris said, reporting from Niamey in Niger.

Ovigwe Eguegu, analyst at the security consultancy group Afripolitika, told Al Jazeera the apparent coup in Gabon is not similar to others witnessed in West Africa.

“The coup in Gabon is different from what we are seeing in other West African countries. While those other coups are more about security and governance, this is specifically about the electoral process,” he said.

Sanusha Naidu, senior research fellow at the South African think tank The Institute for Global Dialogue, said Wednesday’s developments were indicative of “people being dissatisfied with corruption, legacy leaders, and mismanagement of their finances or mismanagement of resources that don’t lead to real development”.

“It is a reaction not just to a broken system, and an undemocratic one. It’s also the fact that the democratic process in itself is raising a lot of contradictions in terms of people feeling as if they can’t trust the political process, the democratic process, and are basically looking towards the military as possibly being that institution that can actually turn things around,” she said.

“People are becoming increasingly intolerant of the fact that they are no longer being treated as citizens in their country. [When] elections become a means to an end, it becomes devalued.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies