Mutinous soldiers in Gabon announce new military leader and arrest president

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 1
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 1 Copyright AP/AP
By Euronews with AP
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Mutinous soldiers in Gabon announced on Wednesday that the head of the country’s elite republican guard would lead the Central African country, hours after saying they had placed the country’s newly re-elected president under house arrest.

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Coup leaders said Gen. Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema was “unanimously” designated president of a transitional committee to lead the country in an announcement on Gabon’s state TV late on Wednesday.

Oligui is the cousin of President Ali Bongo Ondimba, who was declared the winner of the country’s presidential election in a victory that appeared to extend his family’s 55-year rule in the oil-rich nation.

In a video message, apparently from detention in his residence, Bongo called on people to “make noise” to support him. But crowds took to the streets of the capital instead to celebrate the coup against a dynasty that has been accused of getting rich on the country’s resource wealth while many of its citizens struggle.

AP/AP
This video grab shows soldiers holding General Brice Clothaire Oligui Nguema aloft in Libreville, Gabon, Wednesday Aug. 30, 2023.AP/AP

“Thank you, army. Finally, we’ve been waiting a long time for this moment,” said Yollande Okomo, standing near soldiers from Gabon’s elite republican guard, one of the units that staged the takeover.

Coup leaders said there would be a curfew from 6 pm to 6 am local time but that people would be allowed to move about freely during the day on Thursday.

“The president of the transition insists on the need to maintain calm and serenity in our beautiful country ... At the dawn of a new era, we will guarantee the peace, stability and dignity of our beloved Gabon,” Lt. Col. Ulrich Manfoumbi said on state TV Wednesday.

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.

Poverty and corruption in Gabon

The former French colony is a member of OPEC, but its oil wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. 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 US Energy Information Administration, or $2,720 per capita (€2,490).

Nine members of the Bongo family, meanwhile, are under investigation in France, and some face preliminary charges of embezzlement, money laundering and other forms of corruption, according to Sherpa, a French NGO dedicated to accountability. 

Investigators have linked the family to more than €84 million in properties in France, including two villas in Nice, the group says.

A spokesman for the soldiers who claimed power Wednesday said that Bongo’s “unpredictable, irresponsible governance” risked leading the country into chaos. In a later statement, the coup leaders said people around the president had been arrested for “high betrayal of state institutions, massive embezzlement of public funds (and) international financial embezzlement.”

Some analysts warned that the takeover risked bringing instability and could have more to do with divisions among the ruling elite than efforts to improve the lives of ordinary Gabonese. Celebrating soldiers hoisted the head of the republican guard — who is a relative of Bongo — into the air. It’s unclear if the military intends to name him as their new leader.

West Africa 'domino effect'

The coup came about one month after mutinous soldiers in Niger seized power from the democratically elected government, and is the latest in a series of coups across West and Central Africa in recent years. The impunity those coup leaders enjoyed may have inspired the soldiers in Gabon, said Maja Bovcon, senior analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a risk assessment firm.

France has maintained close economic, diplomatic and military ties with Gabon, and has 400 soldiers stationed in the country leading a regional military training operation. The US Africa Command said it has no forces stationed in the Central African nation other than at the US Embassy.

Unlike Niger and two other West African countries run by military juntas, Gabon hasn’t been wracked by jihadi violence and had been seen as relatively stable.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the events in Gabon were being followed with “great concern." He said it was too early to call it part of a trend or a “domino effect” in military takeovers on the continent.

The mutinous officers vowed to respect “Gabon’s commitments to the national and international community.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the coup and called on the security forces to guarantee the safety of the president and his family. 

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When asked about Gabon Wednesday, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell said it would be discussed by EU ministers this week. Defence ministers from the 27-nation bloc are meeting in Spain on Wednesday, and foreign ministers on Thursday. Borrell will chair both meetings, and Niger will also be a focus.

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