Gabon Election Results Were a ‘Smokescreen’ for Soldiers to Oust Unpopular President, Analysts Say

AP Photo/Betiness Mackosso
This video grab shows coup supporters cheering police officers in Libreville, Gabon, Wednesday Aug. 30, 2023.

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — The ouster of Gabon’s president by mutinous soldiers appears to have been well organized and capitalized on the population’s grievances against the government as an excuse to seize power, analysts said.

Soldiers on Wednesday ousted President Ali Bongo Ondimba, whose family has ruled the oil-rich country in Central Africa for more than five decades. The coup leaders accused Bongo of irresponsible governance that risked leading the country into chaos and said they put him under house arrest and detained several Cabinet members.

Meanwhile, the African Union Peace and Security Council met Thursday and announced the immediate suspension of Gabon from “all activities of the AU, its organs and institutions” until the country restores constitutional order.

The head of Gabon’s elite republican guard, Gen. Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema, was announced on state TV as the nation’s new leader hours after Bongo was declared the winner of a weekend presidential election that observers said was marred with irregularities and a lack of transparency.

While there were legitimate grievances about the vote and Bongo’s rule, his ousting is just a pretext for the junta to claim power for themselves, Gabon experts say.

“The timing of the coup, following the announcement of the implausible electoral results, and the speed with which the junta is moving suggests this was planned in advance,” Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said. “While there are many legitimate grievances about the vote and Bongo’s rule, that has little to do with the coup attempt in Gabon. Raising those grievances is just a smokescreen.”

In an announcement on state TV Thursday a spokesman for the junta said Oligui would be sworn into office on Monday September 4 before the constitutional court. It encouraged people to go back work and said it would restore domestic flights.

Also on Thursday, Gabon’s political opposition called for elections to resume “under the supervision” of the armed forces,” to allow the main opposition candidate, Albert Ondo Ossa, to assume the presidency, said his campaign manager Mike Jocktane.

Gabon’s coup is the eighth military takeover in Central and West Africa in three years and comes roughly a month after Niger’s democratically elected president was ousted. Unlike Niger and neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, which have each had two coups apiece since 2020 and are being overrun by extremist violence, Gabon was seen as relatively stable.

However, Bongo’s family has been accused of endemic corruption and not letting the country’s oil wealth trickle down to the population of some 2 million people.

Bongo, 64, has served two terms since coming to power in 2009 after the death of his father, who ruled the country for 41 years, and there has been widespread discontent with his reign. Another group of mutinous soldiers attempted a coup in 2019 but was quickly overpowered.

The former French colony is a member of OPEC, but its oil wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few — and nearly 40% of Gabonese aged 15 to 24 were out of work in 2020, according to the World Bank. Its oil export revenue was $6 billion in 2022, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Gabon’s coup and the overturning of a dynastic leader, such as Bongo, appeared to have struck a nerve across the continent that coups in more remote, volatile West Africa previously hadn’t.

Hours after soldiers in Gabon announced the new leader, the president of neighboring Cameroon, Paul Biya, who’s been in power for 40 years, shuffled his military leadership, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame “accepted the resignation” of a dozen generals and more than 80 other senior military officers. Even Djibouti’s Ismail Omar Guelleh, in power in the tiny former French colony in the Horn of Africa since 1999, condemned the coup in Gabon and denounced the recent trend of military takeovers.

Still, on Wednesday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said it was too early to call the attempted coup in Gabon a trend.

“It’s just too soon to do a table slap here and say, ‘yep, we’ve got a trend here going’ or ‘yep, we’ve got a domino effect,’” he said.

In a statement, the Commission of the Economic Community of Central African States, a Central African regional bloc, said it “firmly condemns” the use of force for resolving political conflicts and gaining access to power. It called for a return to constitutional order.

Since Bongo was toppled, the streets of Gabon’s capital, Libreville, have been jubilant with people celebrating alongside the army.

“Today we can only be happy,” said John Nze, a resident. “The country’s past situation handicapped everyone. There were no jobs. If the Gabonese are happy, it’s because they were hurting under the Bongos”.