Gabon's wealthy, dynastic leader thought he could resist Africa's trend of coups. He might be wrong

The president of Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba, knew well the threat of military coups in his part of the world

Cara Anna
Wednesday 30 August 2023 14:36
Gabon Mutiny
Gabon Mutiny

The president of Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba, knew well the threat of military coups in his part of the world. But he swore one wouldn’t happen to him.

“While our continent has been shaken in recent weeks by violent crises, rest assured that I will never allow you and our country Gabon to be hostages to attempts at destabilization. Never,” Bongo declared this month as the central African nation marked 60 years of independence from France, almost all of that time with his family in power.

Now, according to a group of mutinous Gabonese security forces who spoke on state television early Wednesday, he is under house arrest, accused of “unpredictable, irresponsible governance.” The soldiers who claimed authority said people around Bongo had been arrested for “high betrayal,” embezzlement and corruption, though it was not clear whether the president himself faced those charges.

In a minute-long video shared with The Associated Press and apparently filmed at home in the capital, Bongo confirmed his arrest and urged the world to “make noise” about it.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” he said, seated and speaking in English. In the richly carpeted room, an image of former South African President Nelson Mandela sat on a bookshelf.

A longtime politician and one-time funk musician, the French-educated Bongo, 64, is a member of one of Africa’s political dynasties. He took office in 2009 after the death of his father, who ruled oil-rich Gabon for 41 years, and continued security partnerships with France and the United States.

His family's longevity, perhaps, gave Bongo confidence in the face of the military coups shaking other parts of French-speaking Africa.

Still, there have been challenges. He won his second seven-year term by a narrow margin in 2016 amid violent protests. In late 2018, he had a stroke that kept him from his duties for months. Mutinous soldiers attempted a coup in early 2019 while Bongo was in Morocco recuperating. They were quickly seized.

It is not yet clear how the coup declared Wednesday, hours after Bongo was declared the winner of a weekend presidential election, will play out. The coup leaders said his family and his doctors were with him in his home. They did not give any details about his health.

Bongo has held power in a corner of Africa where heads of state find ways to stay in office for decades. Gabon’s neighbors are ruled by a trio of the continent's longest-running leaders, including Teodoro Obiang in Equatorial Guinea, in office since 1979; Paul Biya in Cameroon, in office since 1982; and Denis Sassou Nguesso, in office from 1979-92 and again since 1997.

While Gabon’s oil reserves have enriched the country’s rulers, many linked by family ties, frustration has been growing among the population over the inequality on display.

“It is an oil emirate run like a family property for almost six decades,” Thomas Borrel, an analyst in France who studies Africa, said.

Bongo is one of Africa’s richest heads of state, and his wealth is likely to be scrutinized even more now, along with that of his family. Investigators in the U.S. and France have looked into millions of assets in both countries.

For most people in Gabon, economic pain is rising along with prices. In an Aug. 17 Independence Day speech, Bongo acknowledged the widespread frustration. “I know there is impatience,” he said. “The sentiment that we could have done better.”

He listed steps his government was taking to contain fuel prices, make education more affordable and to keep the cost of baguettes stable. In January, the Gabonese government created a ministry to combat the high cost of living, according to the World Bank.

Even as Bongo tried to appeal to citizens for votes, he continued what human rights groups and other observers have described as years of efforts to stifle the opposition. Gabon abolished presidential term limits two decades ago. Last weekend’s general election, for the first time, was said to have no international observers.

Bongo appeared intent on staying in office, like his father, until his death.

“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,” Borrel said of Wednesday's mutiny.

In recent years, Bongo has tried to present Gabon to the world as a global leader in environmental conservation instead of a case study in clinging to power.

The United Nations last year described the small nation as “probably the most carbon-positive country in the world due to its strong environmental conservation and longstanding political commitment to preserving the country’s untouched natural environment.”

In 2021, Gabon was the first country to receive payments for reducing forest emissions from deforestation. Bongo took pleasure in the progress and praise.

But such achievements are now overshadowed by the sight of hundreds of people dancing and cheering in the streets of the capital on Wednesday, declaring themselves free.

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