Geopolitics Military Affairs

Army officers occupied government buildings, dissolved parliament and imprisoned the president in Gabon. What is behind the latest of the coups in Africa?

Pavol Beblavý

On 30 August, a military coup took place in Gabon. The coup took place shortly after the announcement of the election results by the National Electoral Commission, which declared that the incumbent President Ali Bongo had won the election. Bongo was the main victim of the coup and is currently under house arrest. A military junta led by Brice Oligui, Ali Bongo’s cousin and commander of the Gabonese Republican Guard, has taken power.

Gabon is a small Central African country located in the Gulf of Guinea. With a population of only 2.3 million, the local economy is mainly based on the export of oil and other mineral resources. France used to have a monopoly on oil production, but Russian and Chinese companies are now also present in this sector. The country also has the second-largest reserves of manganese in the world.

Gabon was ruled by the Bongo dynasty for 55 years. Shortly after gaining independence from France in 1960, Omar Bongo became president of Gabon. He ruled autocratically until 1990 when he adopted a compromise constitution that partially liberalised the country. Omar Bongo subsequently led the country until 2008, when he died of a heart attack, and his son Ali Bongo took over. The Bongo dynasty is a classic example of post-colonial Africa. Since taking power, the Bongo family has worked closely with their former coloniser, France. There are French military garrisons in Gabon, the country receives financial aid from France, and French companies own a significant amount of Gabon’s oil industry. Gabon, despite having a higher GDP per capita than Brazil, is one of the countries with the lowest standard of living in the world. 34% of the population lives below the poverty line, and 40% of the population is unemployed. The widespread poverty is due to the kleptocratic governance of the country during the Bongo era.

Ali Bong’s rule was marked by great unrest from the beginning. There have been numerous anti-government protests over electoral manipulation. In 2019, the military attempted a coup, but this attempt was unsuccessful. However, instability in Gabon has also been exacerbated by events in other African countries, where a number of coups have taken place in recent months. Armed forces have successively seized power in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger. The military juntas quickly established cooperation with the Wagner group in the fight against Islamists. Regional bodies, such as ECOWAS or the African Union, and Western powers, such as France, the EU and the US, have not reacted forcefully to suppress these coups. It is likely that the Gabonese armed forces realised that, in the event of a coup, France would not be willing to intervene militarily to save Ali Bongo. The direct trigger for the coup was the presidential election that granted Bong a third presidential term. The legitimacy of these elections has been called into question because of allegations of electoral fraud against the government. Shortly after the results were announced, in a very unstable situation, the aforementioned coup took place. The coup took place without any complications, and the state is under the control of the armed forces.

It is important to note the difference between this coup and other coups in the Gulf of Guinea over the last year. These coups were anti-colonialist (anti-French), pro-Russian, and aimed at suppressing a pre-existing Islamist insurgency. The Gabonese coup has none of these features. The junta has declared that it intends to maintain existing international commitments and has taken no action against the French army, which has garrisons in the country. The Junta has not begun to cooperate in any form with the Wagner mercenaries, and there is no indication that it intends to take such a step.

The reactions of many Gabonese suggest that the coup is popular with at least part of the population. The junta’s popularity is also helped by the fact that it has recently launched a number of crackdowns on corrupt members of Bong’s government. At the same time, the country is not facing an insurgency war like Burkina Faso, Mali or Niger, for example, and it is therefore possible that power will be transferred to a civilian government in the near future. At the moment, however, it is very difficult to understand the exact motivations of the putschists, but the election of Brice Oligueo as an interim president suggests that the army is not planning to relinquish power in the near future. If they intend a gradual democratic transition, it is likely that a large and organised Gabonese opposition would be able to slowly take power from the armed forces. However, if they intend to create a new kleptocratic junta, it would be difficult for anyone to prevent this. The only realistic way to overthrow the junta in the near future would be a foreign invasion by the West. However, with France’s weakening position and US indifference, such a scenario is unlikely.

Photo credit:

This brief is supported by

NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division

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