Gabon’s Coup Chief Takes Command as ‘Transitional President’

The leader of a coup that ousted Gabon’s President Ali Bongo was sworn in as interim president and cheered by jubilant supporters in a televised ceremony designed to cast the military as liberators of an oppressed society.
Gabon’s Coup Chief Takes Command as ‘Transitional President’
Gabon's new strongman, Gen. Brice Oligui Nguema, (2nd R) poses for a photograph with his wife, Zita Nyangue Oligui Nguema, as he is inaugurated as Gabon's interim president, in Libreville on Sept. 4, 2023. (AFP via Getty Images)
Nalova Akua
When journalist Estra Nelle Ovono Ndong, 37, woke up on Aug. 30 to the news that generals in his tiny oil-rich central African nation of Gabon had seized power from President Ali Bongo Odimba, all he could do was go into his room, close the door, and pray to God.

Having confirmed the news with neighbors minutes later, Mr. Ovono immediately joined thousands of other Gabonese in the streets of Port-Gentil to celebrate the bloodless coup.

“Like most compatriots, I am happy, but at the same time, I am a little bit scared because with [the military], it’s never easy,” said Mr. Ovono, who runs the Facebook news and information platform ENON INFOS. His wish is for the wind of change to sweep across the neighboring countries of Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and the Republic of Congo, which have been ruled by the same leaders for decades.

“If a military coup was the only way to liberate these peoples ruled by these dynasties, why not follow the Gabonese example while preserving human life?” Mr. Owono told The Epoch Times. “I expect from the new regime the recognition of the victory of the people who bestowed their confidence on the opposition through the ballot box. I want Gabon to return to civilian rule as soon as possible.”

Gen. Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema—the ringleader of the coup, former head of the Gabonese Republican Guard, and cousin to the ousted president— was sworn in as “transitional president” on Sept. 4 at the constitutional court. Prior to the ceremony, the military leadership reopened the country’s borders.
The military takeover on Aug. 30 came minutes after Gabon’s election body announced that Mr. Bongo, 64, had won a third term, which was to extend the Bongo family’s more than half-century in power. The opposition had denounced the Aug. 26 vote as fraudulent—a claim that Mr. Bongo’s campaign denied.

Hours after seizing power and putting Mr. Bongo under house arrest, the officers, calling themselves the Committee of Transition and the Restoration of Institutions, announced the annulment of the election results, the dissolution of state institutions, and border closures.

Mr. Bongo’s son and close adviser Noureddin Bongo Valentin, chief of staff Ian Ghislain Ngoulou, deputy chief of staff Mohamed Ali Saliou, and two other presidential advisers, as well as the two top officials in the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), were arrested and accused of treason, embezzlement, corruption, and falsifying the president’s signature, among other allegations.

Gabonese security forces are seen after a group of Gabonese military officers appeared on television announcing they were "putting an end to the current regime" and scrapping official election results that had handed another term to veteran President Ali Bongo Ondimba, in Libreville, on Aug. 30, 2023. (AFP via Getty Images)
Gabonese security forces are seen after a group of Gabonese military officers appeared on television announcing they were "putting an end to the current regime" and scrapping official election results that had handed another term to veteran President Ali Bongo Ondimba, in Libreville, on Aug. 30, 2023. (AFP via Getty Images)

‘Change Won’t Come Overnight’

The putschists have justified the latest coup because of what they call “a severe institutional, political, economic, and social crisis,” adding that the Aug. 26 vote wasn’t credible.
Manu Lekunze, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Aberdeen, said the ordinary Gabonese should expect “very little” from the leadership change, further likening it to “putting new wine into an old wineskin.”

“This is intra-regime change and not a regime change in itself—the man on the street might not feel much change in their daily lives,” Mr. Manu told The Epoch Times.

“Because of the longevity of the regime, one can assume that they have some kind of a winning recipe on how to stay in power. All the elite in Gabon are somehow related to the Bongo family. Change won’t come overnight. Democracy may only return in 10 to 20 years’ time.”

The junta leader, Gen. Nguema, was once an aide-de-camp of late President Omar Bongo and later, head of the powerful elite military team in charge of Mr. Ali Bongo’s security, the Gabon Republican guard. Gen. Nguema carried out some security reforms that helped the younger Bongo strengthen his grip on power.

“He is believed to have strong contacts with the French, held diplomatic posts in other francophone states like Algeria and Morocco, and some notable investments in U.S. real estate,” Mr. Onuoha told The Epoch Times.

“These and other contacts, coupled with his longstanding experience in knitting security arrangements for protection of high-value politicians, are critical enablers that he can easily leverage to strengthen his own grip on power sooner than most people are prepared to accept.

“But more important is the genuine concern [about] his rise and reign translating to a continuation of the ‘Gabongos’ system, a moniker derived from the fusing of the word Gabon and Bongo to construct a dynastic rule.”

Mr. Onuoha says it’s unlikely that Gabon will return to democratic rule any time soon. Instead, he says, there may be a transition of Gen. Nguema into a civilian head, at worst, or a transfer of power to a person he prefers, at best.

“Depending on [the] constellation of forces and the desperation to consolidate his power, he may undertake domestic and foreign policies that will whittle down the influence of France as a masterstroke to garner popular support at home and quickly consolidate power in an environment already characterized by growing anti-French sentiments in West and Central Africa,” Mr. Onuoha said.

Groups, Countries Condemn Coup

Central Africa’s political bloc, ECCAS, has condemned the coup and announced an “imminent” meeting of heads of state to determine how to respond. The African Union also condemned the military takeover, calling on the military to ensure the safety of Mr. Bongo and his family, and said it was “immediately” suspending the participation of Gabon in all its activities, organs, and institutions.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres “firmly condemned“ the coup and said that “serious infringements of fundamental freedoms” appeared to have taken place during the recent elections.

France, Gabon’s former colonial ruler, equally condemned the coup. If successful, the Gabon coup would be the eighth in West and Central Africa since 2020.

The most recent coup—in Niger—occurred in July. Military officers have also seized power in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Chad, erasing democratic gains since the 1990s and raising concern among foreign powers with strategic interests in the region.
“The population that should have protested against military coups are not protesting; instead, they are celebrating,” said Mr. Manu. “We have also seen that the international community and the international organizations that should reject coups instead just make public statements and follow them with no action.”

China, Russia May Try to ‘Gain More Inroads’

“So long as the people don’t protest and the international community doesn’t act, nothing will stop a coup in any part of Africa today. With this, militaries can more or less do as they wish,” he said.

Mr. Onuoha warned that every sudden change of government in Africa—especially through military intervention—only opens an opportunity for foreign actors to further their interests. China and Russia will likely try to “gain more inroads into Gabon” as France loses its grip on its former colonies, he said.

“Overall, French losses will translate to gains for the other actors,” he said.

“Strategic interests, such as access to oil and military basing considerations, will drive China’s interest, expansion of political and diplomatic holds will underpin Russia’s interest, and the quest to hedge China and Russia’s inroads into Gabon will fuel U.S. and UK interests in relating with the new junta.”