A video of Ali Bongo, Gabon’s president, went viral on Wednesday. He looked disoriented as he stared into a camera, appealing for international help against the generals who had placed him under house arrest and carried out the latest coup in West and Central Africa.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Bongo, 64, said in the video. Only a few days ago, he had been declared the winner of Gabon’s election as president for a third term with 64 percent of votes. But the fairness of the polls had been under scrutiny by the opposition coalition that alleged malpractice and international groups that pointed to internet restrictions and press gags as signs of an opaque process. People came out in the streets of the capital city, Libreville, to celebrate the end of the nearly 56-year rule of the Bongo family.
NEW VIDEO: Gabon president Ali Bongo Ondimba appeals for international support after military coup – in English pic.twitter.com/Sj8PXkCKqa
— Larry Madowo (@LarryMadowo) August 30, 2023
The military takeover in Gabon comes hard on the heels of last month’s coup in much poorer Niger and follows seven other putsches in West and Central Africa in just three years, all in former French colonies. But this one seems different.
The military junta, in their speech announcing the coup, expressed discontent with the elections as their motivation for seizing power. They cited “irresponsible, unpredictable governance [that] has led to a steady deterioration in social cohesion” while declaring the results cancelled and dissolving all state institutions. The premise for its neighbours’ coups was that civilian governments supposedly failed to stop the violent rebels in the Sahel region. They also showed deep-seated animosity towards France, the old colonial ruler, and wanted some countries in the area to break free from France’s military and financial help.
However, Gabon’s situation is very similar to Guinea’s. Alpha Conde changed the law to let him run for president again in the West African country. People were angry that he wanted to stay in power for a long time. This was also why they kicked out Bongo, who became president in 2009 after his father died. His father was the president of Gabon for 42 years.
What’s at stake?
The junta took over because they did not like how the country was run, not because there was a security crisis. This shows that other countries in Africa that are not well-run but look stable can also have a coup. The Bongo family has been in power since 1967, and they have reportedly used the country’s oil money to make themselves rich while the people are poor. They have bought expensive houses in the West and kept a lot of cash there.
Gabon has a lot of oil and has the potential to make more money than most African countries. But many young people do not have jobs. Gabon’s GNI per capita of over $7,500 is four times the sub-Saharan African average, and the country has an oil reserve of two billion barrels. Despite recently joining the Commonwealth, a significant portion of its 2.4 million citizens remains in poverty, with youth unemployment at 38 percent.
The coup will affect Gabon’s economy. The country is a major manganese ore producer, crucial for steel and electric car battery production, holding about 14 percent of global reserves. Additionally, Gabon is an OPEC member, exporting approximately 200,000 barrels of oil daily. Also, in recent years, Gabon — one of the world’s most forested nations — has been at the vanguard of using climate finance to develop new sources of revenue and diversify away from a reliance on crude oil sales. It has developed eco-friendly policies, such as selling green bonds in exchange for protecting its woodland and a $500 million “blue bond” to safeguard marine life.
Cause for celebration?
Historically, military coups don’t yield economic progress in Africa. And while this coup is different from most of its neighbours, there is still cause for scepticism. The coup leader, General Brice Oligui Nguema, is Bongo’s cousin. He was also an aide de camp to the senior Bongo, Omar. So, for now, power remains a family affair in Gabon.