Gabon Coup: Old Wine in New Bottle- No Trust in the Generals

Dimeji Macaulay

Thousands of Gabonese have welcomed the recent military coup against the ousted president, Ali Bongo Ondimba. The streets of the capital Libreville were filled with jubilation as ordinary people expressed their weariness with Ali Bongo’s continued presidency, especially given his health condition and anti-poor policies.

According to reports, Gabonese army officers, operating under the Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions, made a televised announcement on the morning of August 30th, explaining their reasons for taking control of the country from President Ali Bongo Ondimba. The soldiers pointed to serious institutional, political, economic, and social crises as factors behind the coup, which they deemed “necessary” for the progress of the West African country. As a result, the borders were closed until further notice.

The junta canceled the election that had taken place on Saturday, August 26th, and decided to dissolve all of the country’s institutions, including the Federal Government, the Senate, the National Assembly, the Constitutional Court, the Economic, Social, and Environmental Council, and the Gabonese Elections Centre. Ali Bongo claimed he had just been elected for a third term in a contentious and controversial election. Despite opposition rejection of the results, the Gabonese Elections Centre declared Bongo as president. They announced that Bongo won the presidential election with 64% of the vote, defeating his top rival, Albert Ondo Ossa, by a significant margin. Albert Ondo rejected the results, citing numerous irregularities during the elections. In a desperate bid to remain in power, Bongo had cut off the internet and imposed a curfew during the election in an attempt to prevent the dissemination of information regarding irregularities and restrict the movement of people.

The new military regime has put Ali Bongo in house arrest and immediately placed him in retirement. Additionally, his son, Noureddin Bongo Valentin, along with certain government officials, has been arrested on charges of “high treason.” Noureddin had overseen a majority of his father’s activities.

The new military leader, Colonel Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema, has been announced as the head of the coup. He was paraded through the streets of Libreville by jubilant soldiers who celebrated the successful coup, potentially marking the end of the Bongo family dynasty. The new ruler told the media that Ali Bongo has “retired” but would “enjoy all his rights” as a “normal Gabonese.”

Similar to how the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) responded to the Niger coup with threats, the Central African bloc ECCAS has “firmly” condemned the military takeover in Libreville and is considering its response. However, it’s unlikely that there will be significant pushback, as ECOWAS is currently divided on the best approach to intervene in Niger. In response to the coup, the African Union (AU) has suspended Gabon’s membership. The hypocrisy of these institutions is glaring: they have never uttered a word about autocratic rule by the likes of Ali Bongo, Paul Biya of Cameroon, and others who have retained power for decades while their countries suffered from hunger and curable diseases, leading to the deaths of millions citizens. But now they protest about the fate of democracy in these countries!

Gabon and the Bongos at a glance

Gabon is a Central African nation with a population of approximately 2.3 million. It shares borders with Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo, and Equatorial Guinea. The country, despite its vast reserves of crude oil, has a complex history rooted in its colonial past and ongoing issues with neo-colonialism and capitalist exploitation of its resources, primarily by France.

Gabon was a French colony before gaining independence in 1960, but France continues to meddle with its politics, having also military presence in the country. This influence has allowed for the exploitation of Gabonese resources, particularly its significant crude oil reserves. Despite its oil wealth, approximately 33 percent of Gabon’s population live in abject poverty.

Ranked as the sixth-largest oil-producing country in Africa, Gabon produces an estimated 211,000 barrels of crude oil per day. However, an estimated 40% of Gabonese citizens are unemployed, and 60–70% of the population live below the poverty line, with daily incomes of less than US $1. President Ali Bongo’s extravagant lifestyle and provocative conduct contrasts sharply with the daily struggles of the majority of the population.

Gabon’s political landscape has been heavily dominated by the Bongo family. Omar Bongo, Ali Bongo’s father, held power for an astonishing 42 years, from 1967 until his death in 2009. After his father’s death, Ali Bongo assumed the presidency and has held the position since 2009. Both Bongos did not have a specific ideology, other than the need for a perpetual continuation of their rule, and the French neo-colonial interests, of course.

The corrupt anti-poor, pro-colonial policies of Ali Bongo explain the fact that while he appealed to his international allies to denounce the coup and “make noise”, the streets of Libreville saw jubilant celebrations, highlighting the deep-seated frustrations and desires for change among the Gabonese population.

Adding fuel to the fire, Macron stated after the Gabon coup that if France had not been engaged with a military presence in Africa

“there would probably no longer be a Mali… Burkina Faso, and I’m not sure there would still be Niger.”

in a clear show of colonial arrogance. And these people and their lackeys wonder why there is a wave of disgust against them in the wider area.

No Solution Under the Military Generals

Interestingly, the leader of the coup, General Nguema, is a cousin and former close ally of the Bongo regime. In April 2020, Nguema assumed command of the Republican Guard, an elite army corps responsible for protecting Bongo. Nguema is believed to be a millionaire and certainly not someone who lives a life close to the average Gabonese person.

An investigation conducted in 2020 by The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) shed light on the Bongo family’s assets in the United States. It was reported that Nguema had invested in real estate, and there were allegations that he had paid one million dollars in cash for these properties. Specifically, Nguema purchased three properties in the suburbs of Hyattsville and Silver Spring, just outside the U.S. capital, in 2015 and 2018.

When questioned about these allegations, Nguema responded by stating, “I think whether in France or in the United States, a private life is a private life that [should be] respected.”

As for the direction the current crop of generals in power in Gabon will take, it remains uncertain whether they will take a confrontational stance against Western imperialism or seek to accommodate it. For the moment, both US and French imperialism but also Russia and China have appealed for the “restoration of order”, a language that usually means that neither of the two competing geopolitical camps were involved in the coup.

The recent much-discussed resurgence of military coups in Africa, reflects the deadlock that these countries find themselves in, but also the scramble for resources and political support by the West and by China-Russia blocs. Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea have challenged the rule of French and Western imperialism, turning to Russia and China. Whether Gabon generals will follow the same path remains to be seen.

Gabon must be free

It’s evident that the military will not provide a solution to the problems of ordinary people in Gabon. They have not provided any evidence that they plan to follow a pro-poor policy or change the trajectory of the Gabonese economy.

Gabon boasted a GDP per capita of over $7,600 as of 2019, making it one of the wealthiest countries on the African continent. However, the overreliance on oil, which accounts for 80% of its exports and 45% of its GDP, has left the nation vulnerable to economic fluctuations. Corruption and over-exploitation have also riddled it with inequalities.

Ordinary people may initially place their hopes in the new regime, because it helped them get rid of the hated Ali Bongo, but as history has shown, military governments only change the person in charge, rather than the policies to blame for people’s problems.

To really change the life of the Gabonese people, there needs to be united action from working class people themselves. Such action requires a collective class-conscious political body that can advocate for the interests of the working class and marginalized groups. With the significant resources Gabon possesses, there is potential for a better quality of life for its people. However, achieving this requires a break with the capitalist system and its representatives.

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