A military coup pushed the Central African The nation of Gabon was in turmoil on Wednesday, ousting the president, whose family had held power for more than half a century, just minutes after he was named the winner of a disputed election.
Ousted President Ali Bongo Ondimba, also known as Ali Bongo, has faced accusations of voter fraud and corruption since he began ruling the oil-rich but poverty-stricken nation nearly 14 years ago. Following the coup, residents of the country’s capital were seen celebrating and hugging the soldiers in the street.
But much remains uncertain: Bongo is reportedly under house arrest, his son arrested, all borders closed and the government seemingly paralyzed. International leaders have expressed concern and condemnation of the coup, with some warning their citizens in Gabon to shelter in place.
Here’s what you need to know.
The military takeover began on Wednesday, shortly after Gabon’s electoral authority said Bongo had been re-elected president following last weekend’s election.
Uniformed army men announced on national television that they had seized power. They said the election results were annulled, all borders closed and numerous government bodies dissolved, including both houses of parliament.
The coup leaders said Bongo had been placed under house arrest, surrounded by “family members and doctors.” The son of the ousted president, Noureddin Bongo Valentin, was arrested along with six other people for “high treason”.
A video released by the Agence France-Presse news agency shows Bongo sitting in what appears to be a library, saying he was “in residence” and did not know what was happening. “My son is somewhere, my wife is somewhere else,” he said.
It was not immediately clear under what circumstances the clip was filmed.x
Meanwhile, the junta appointed General Brice Oligui Nguema – who was once a bodyguard for Bongo’s late father, Gabon’s previous ruler – as a transitional leader.
Speaking to French newspaper Le Monde on Wednesday, Oligui said Bongo enjoyed “all his rights” as a “normal Gabonese” citizen.
Videos of the celebration in Gabon circulated online on Wednesday, including images of soldiers carrying Oligui on their shoulders and shouting “president”.
Residents of the capital Libreville were seen dancing in the streets, according to videos shared with CNN and posted on social media. In video obtained by CNN, people can be seen chanting “Free!” and waving the Gabonese flag in the Nzeng Ayong district of the capital, alongside military vehicles.
Similar scenes played out in other parts of Gabon, including the second largest city, Port-Gentil.
Some members of the Gabonese diaspora also celebrated on Wednesday, with Gabonese students gathering outside the country’s embassy in Dakar, Senegal.
“I assure you that what the Gabonese people wanted was simply for the Bongo PDG system to step down from power,” said a student, referring to Bongo’s political party, according to Reuters. “Because, as we said, 60 years is too long.”
It’s hard to say and there’s still a lot we don’t know.
The junta will temporarily reinstate the country’s constitutional court, resume domestic flights and establish “institutions of transition,” a spokesman said on Thursday. The army is expected to swear in Oligui as transitional president before the Constitutional Court on Monday.
He also promised to continue with public services in the country and follow the country’s commitments at the national and international level.
The army imposed a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and national borders will remain closed “until further notice,” a junta spokesman said. However, Oligui has ordered to restore the signal of international radio and television channels.
But doubts remain about what will happen to the country’s leaders; what awaits Bongo and his family; and what the blow means for the international position and diplomatic relations of Gabon.
On Thursday, Gabonese’s main opposition members expressed their gratitude to the military but called on them to resume the electoral process, complete the vote count and concede victory to Bongo’s main rival in the elections.
The opposition representative invited the military leaders to dialogue and “limit the consequences on the lives of our compatriots.”
Ali Bongo, 64, replaced his father, Omar Bongo, who died of cardiac arrest while receiving treatment for intestinal cancer in Spain in 2009, after nearly 42 years in the role.
Father Bongo came to power in 1967, seven years after Gabon gained independence from France.
He ruled the small nation with an iron fist, imposing a one-party system for years and only allowing multi-party rule in 1991, though his party retained control of the government.
Ali Bongo began his political career in 1981, serving as foreign minister, congressman and defense minister before becoming president in 2009, according to the website of the Gabon embassy in the United States.
But the Bongos have their fair share of critics, especially given the country’s yawning wealth gap. An investigation by the French financial police in 2007 found that the Bongo family owned 39 properties in France, 70 bank accounts and nine luxury cars with a total value of €1.5 million. according to Reuters.
Each of Ali Bongo’s three electoral victories has been deeply debated, sometimes provoking violent nationwide protests. The opposition has described this week’s elections as fraudulent; Bongo’s team has denied the allegations of electoral irregularities.
Similarly in 2016, After Bongo was named the victor of the election, his main rival said the country’s constitutional court’s decision to uphold the contested result was “biased”. Other failed coup attempt against Bongo took place in 2019.
There have been multiple coups in the last three years in the former French colonies in Africa. Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Tunisia and now Gabon – which threaten to reverse the democratization process that the continent has undergone in the last two decades.
Coups in Africa were widespread in the first post-colonial decades, and coup leaders offered similar reasons for overthrowing governments: corruption, mismanagement, and poverty. according to political analyst Remi Adekoya.
These justifications still resonate with many Africans today, he wrote for CNN in 2021, and in many countries people feel that these problems are getting worse. Meanwhile, the population is growing on the world’s youngest continent, intensifying the already fierce competition for resources.
These conditions have helped fuel more recent coups, with many young Africans disillusioned with allegedly corrupt leaders and ready for radical change, as seen at celebrations in Gabon on Wednesday and similar celebrations after the Guinea coup two years ago.
The Gabon coup has been widely criticized by other African nations and in the West. The African Union, which represents 55 member states, condemned the coup and suspended Gabon from participating in all the group’s activities “until constitutional order is restored.”
The Economic Community of Central African States (ECACS) also condemned the takeover and called for dialogue to return the country to civilian rule. A meeting is scheduled to be held with the heads of state of the member countries to discuss “the way forward” regarding Gabon.
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres also condemned Wednesday’s coup, according to his spokesman. Guterres expressed concern about “reports of serious violations of fundamental freedoms” during the disputed elections, but urged all parties to respect the rule of law and human rights.
US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Wednesday that the United States is “firmly opposed to military takeovers or unconstitutional transfers of power” and urged coup leaders to “preserve civilian rule.” And he added: “The United States stands with the people of Gabon.”
The US embassy in Gabon advised its citizens in the country to shelter in place and limit “unnecessary movement around the city.” Americans in Gabon should “keep a low profile… avoid demonstrations… make contingency plans to leave… (and) have evacuation plans that do not depend on US government assistance,” he said on his website.
The European Union’s top diplomat said the bloc “rejects” the coup, though he said the EU shared “deep concerns” about how the electoral process was conducted. He said the EU currently has no plans to evacuate its Gabon-based staff.
Other European nations, including the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain, made similar statements.