Mutinous soldiers claimed to have seized power in Gabon on Wednesday and put the president under house arrest, hours after he was declared the winner in an election extending his family’s 55-year rule in the oil-rich Central African nation.
In a video apparently from detention in his residence, President Ali Bongo Ondimba called on people to “make noise” to support him. But crowds instead took to the streets of the capital and sang the national anthem to celebrate the coup attempt against a dynasty accused of getting rich on the country’s resource wealth while many of its citizens struggle to scrape by.
“Thank you, army. Finally, we’ve been waiting a long time for this moment,” said Yollande Okomo, standing in front of soldiers from Gabon’s elite republican guard, one of the units that staged the takeover.
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 their reign for years. 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. Several 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 French media reports.
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.”
The coup attempt 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 putschists enjoyed may have inspired the soldiers in Gabon, said Maja Bovcon, senior analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a risk assessment firm.
While the move reflects divisions among the ruling elite, it's not clear it would change the status quo. 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.
Foreign leaders and analysts warned that the takeover risked bringing instability and only worsening the lives of many Gabonese.
In weekend elections, Bongo faced an opposition coalition led by Albert Ondo Ossa, an economics professor and former education minister whose surprise nomination came a week before the vote. Every election held in Gabon since the country’s return to a multiparty system in 1990 has ended in violence, and there were fears this one would as well.
The vote was criticized by international observers, but a relative calm prevailed until the early hours of Wednesday, when Bongo was declared the winner.
Minutes later, gunfire was heard in the center of the capital, Libreville. Later, a dozen uniformed soldiers appeared on state television and announced that they had seized power.
Soon after, crowds poured into the streets. Shopkeeper Viviane Mbou offered the soldiers juice.
“Long live our army,” said Jordy Dikaba, a young man walking with his friends on a street lined with armored policemen.
Libreville is a stronghold of support for the opposition, but it was unclear how the coup attempt was seen in the countryside, where more people traditionally back Bongo.
The president pleaded for support in a video showing him sat in a chair with a bookshelf behind him. He said he was detained in his residence and his wife and son were elsewhere.
“I’m calling you to make noise, to make noise, to make noise really,” he said in English. The video was shared with The Associated Press by BTP Advisers, a communications firm that helped the president with polling for the election.
The coup leaders have said the president was under house arrest, surrounded by family and doctors.
Ossa told The AP he wasn’t ready to comment and was waiting for the situation to evolve.
“Gabon was in a midst of another electoral coup, so a coup chased another coup and the latest one has more chances of being popular, but let’s remain cautious," said Thomas Borrel, a spokesperson for the Paris-based human rights group Survie, which advocates against France’s interventionist policies in Africa. "If a military dictatorship replaces Bongo’s dictatorship, the Gabonese population would lose again.”
The mutinous officers vowed to respect “Gabon’s commitments to the national and international community.” But the coup attempt threatened to bring the economy to a halt.
A man who answered the phone at the airport said flights were canceled Wednesday, and the private intelligence firm Ambrey said all operations at the country’s main port in Libreville had been halted, with authorities refusing to grant permission for vessels to leave. Several French companies said they were suspending operations and moving to ensure the safety of their staff.
“France condemns the military coup that is underway in Gabon and is closely monitoring developments in the country, and France reaffirms its wish that the outcome of the election, once known, be respected,” French government spokesperson, Olivier Veran, said Wednesday.
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 European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said Gabon would be discussed by the bloc's ministers this week.
“If this is confirmed, it’s another military coup, which increases instability in the whole region,” he said.
A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, Wang Wenbin, called on the parties to resolve the issue peacefully, keeping in mind the interests of the nation and its people.