The leader of a coup that overthrew Gabon’s President Ali Bongo says he wants to avoid rushing into elections that “repeat past mistakes” as pressure mounts to hand back power to a civilian government.
A spokesman for Gabon’s military rulers also said on state TV they “decided with immediate effect to reopen the land, sea and air borders as of this Saturday”.
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Military officers led by General Brice Oligui Nguema seized power on Wednesday minutes after an announcement that Bongo had secured a third term in an election.
The officers placed Bongo under house arrest and installed Nguema as head of state, ending the Bongo family’s 56-year hold on power.
The coup – West and Central Africa’s eighth in three years – drew cheering crowds onto the streets of the capital, Libreville, but condemnation from abroad and at home.
“Our aim is to move as quickly as possible, quickly but surely. Moving as quickly as possible doesn’t mean organising elections in a rush where we’ll end up with the same mistakes, where the same people will continue in power, and it all comes back to the same thing,” Nguema said in a televised address on Friday night.
Regional bloc, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), has urged partners led by the United Nations and the African Union to support a rapid return to constitutional order, it said in a statement after an extraordinary meeting on Thursday. It said it would reconvene on Monday.
Duffel bags stuffed with cash
Gabon’s main opposition group, Alternance 2023, which says it is the rightful winner of the election, urged the international community on Friday to encourage the generals to hand power back to civilians.
Bongo was elected in 2009, taking over from his late father who came to power in 1967. Opponents say the family did little to share Gabon’s oil and mining wealth.
For years the Bongo family occupied a luxurious palace overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. They own expensive cars and properties in France and the United States, often paid for in cash, according to a 2020 investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a global network of investigative journalists.
Meanwhile, almost one-third of the country’s 2.3 million people live in poverty.
Military leaders ordered the arrest of one of Bongo’s sons, Noureddin Bongo Valentin, and several members of Bongo’s cabinet on accusations ranging from alleged embezzlement to narcotics trafficking.
State broadcaster Gabon 24 said on Thursday that duffel bags stuffed with cash wrapped in plastic had been confiscated from the homes of various officials. Its footage included a raid on the house of former cabinet director Ian Ghislain Ngoulou.
Standing next to Bongo Valentin, he told the channel the money was part of Bongo’s election fund. It was unclear when the images were shot.
Lawyers for Bongo’s wife Sylvia said on Friday that Bongo Valentin was being held in an undisclosed location, and the family is concerned about his safety.
“You need politicians to manage a transition and above all a state,” said retired Libreville resident Timothe Moutsinga. “We expect a lot from this government and this transition, a transfer of power to civilians.”
The takeover in Gabon follows coups in Guinea, Chad and Niger, plus two each in Mali and Burkina Faso since 2020. The takeovers have erased democratic gains in a region where insecurity and widespread poverty have weakened elected governments, worrying international powers with strategic interests at stake.