Gabon: the end of a dictatorship… and the beginning of another?
Minutes after the announcement of the results of fraudulent elections, the Gabonese military staged a coup that ended over half a century of dynastic rule. Street celebrations and expressions of relief from Gabonese civil society, long the victim of repression, have contrasted with international condemnation amid concern at the wave of military coups sweeping Central and West Africa. Military rule is seldom as brief as promised, and very rarely gives way to rapid transitions to democracy. The Gabonese military must quickly hand over to a democratically elected civilian government, or the danger is of a new dictatorship that could be even more repressive than its predecessor.
On 26 August, Gabon went through the motions of a general election. Official results were announced on public television four days later, in the middle of the night, with the country under curfew and amid an internet shutdown. Predictably, incumbent President Ali Bongo, in power since the death of his father and predecessor in 2009, was handed a third term, with 64.3 per cent of the vote. Fraud allegations were rife, as in previous elections. But this time something unprecedented happened: less than an hour later the military had taken over, and the Bongo family’s 56-year reign had ended.
Because of Bongo’s despotic will, the election was held under totally irregular conditions, in flagrant violation of international norms and standards.
This was the eighth successful military coup in West and Central Africa over the past four years, and the seventh in Francophone Africa. Two took place in Mali in 2020 and 2021, and two in Burkina Faso in 2022. Coups also were staged in Chad, Guinea and Sudan in 2021 and in Niger earlier this year. In none of these countries have the military retreated to the barracks after implementing what were invariably described as the ‘corrective’ and ‘temporary’ measures that supposedly led them to intervene.
In Gabon, people welcomed the military with open arms. They danced in the streets and hugged soldiers in celebration. They thanked them for liberating them from the authoritarian yoke they’d lived under, most for all their lives.
But overturning an oppressive regime isn’t the same as achieving democratic freedom. It’s rare indeed for a military takeover to be followed by the rapid establishment of free institutions. Analysis shows that although democracies are occasionally established in the wake of coups, too often it’s new authoritarian regimes that emerge, bringing even higher levels of state-sanctioned violence and human rights abuses.
A predatory autocracy
Omar Bongo gained power in 1967, just a few years after Gabon achieved independence from France, and kept it for more than 40 years. He declared the country a one-party state and ruled with an iron fist until he died in 2009. He only started allowing multi-party competition in 1991, after making sure his ironically named Gabonese Democratic Party would retain its grip through a combination of patronage and repression.
His son and successor retained the dynasty’s power with elections plagued by irregularities both in 2009 and 2016. In both instances it was widely believed that the real winner wasn’t Bongo but his main rival. The constitution was repeatedly amended to allow further terms, most recently in 2018, and electoral rules and timetables were systematically manipulated to obstruct the opposition.
Still, his 2016 re-election was a near-miss: Bongo was only able to claim a tight victory thanks to fabricated landslide results in his home province, where he supposedly received more than 95 per cent of the vote on an implausible 99.9 per cent turnout – compared to a 54 per cent turnout in the rest of Gabon.
Blatant fraud sparked violent protests that were even more violently repressed. Independent sources estimated a death toll of over 50, plus hundreds of arrests. The headquarters of the opposition Union of Forces for Change were stormed by security forces. In response to demands by both the opposition and European Union (EU) observers, a recount was conducted, but the Constitutional Court, an institution long in the Bongos’ pocket, denied observers access to the recount and handed Bongo an even more comfortable victory.
Bongo suffered a stroke in 2018 and was out of the public eye for nearly a year, fuelling concerns, including among the military, that he might be unfit to rule. But a 2019 attempted military coup failed and was followed by an internet shutdown, a media crackdown and arrests of opposition politicians. In 2020 the penal code was changed, increasing penalties for insulting the president and organising or participating in banned meetings.
Under the Bongos’ dynastic reign, corruption, nepotism and predatory elite behaviour became rampant. A small country of 2.3 million, Gabon has vast oil reserves, accounting for around 60 per cent of its revenues. In terms of per capita GDP, it’s one of Africa’s richest countries – but a third of its population is poor and it has an unemployment rate of around 30 per cent. This contrasts starkly with the incalculable ill-gotten wealth of the Bongo family and their inner circle, something that has increasingly fuelled anger among the majority.
Voices from the frontline
Georges Mpaga is National Executive President of the Network of Free Civil Society Organisations of Gabon (ROLBG), a civil society organisation advocating to improve civic space in Gabon and Central Africa and campaigning against enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture and arbitrary detention. He’s among those who’ve welcomed the coup.
The 26 August elections were undoubtedly fraudulent, as were the previous ones. The regime led by predatory dictator Ali Bongo had banned international and domestic observer missions and international media. ROLBG was the only organisation that carried out citizen observation through the parallel vote tabulation system. Because of Bongo’s despotic will, the election was held under totally irregular conditions, in flagrant violation of international norms and standards. The vote count was held behind closed doors, in an opaque context that allowed for large-scale electoral fraud and falsified results.
Civic space and the conditions for exercising democratic freedoms and human rights were difficult under the former regime. The rights of association, peaceful assembly and expression were flouted. Many civil society activists and human rights defenders, including myself, spent time in prison or were deprived of their fundamental rights.
Civil society welcomed the military intervention because it sounded the death knell for more than half a century of deceit and predation at the top of the state.
The military intervention was justified as a response to the desire shown by the Bongo clan and its Gabonese Democratic Party to remain in power by will or by force, through fraudulent elections and police repression orchestrated by the defence and security forces, which were instrumentalised and took orders from the former president.
In this sense, the coup in Gabon is not part of a regional trend, but the result of a purely internal process resulting from 56 years of dictatorship and its corollary of human rights violations and the destruction of the country’s economic and social fabric. However, the events underway in Gabon obviously have repercussions in the Central African region, home to some of the worst of Africa’s dictatorships.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Georges. Read the full interview here.
The 30 August coup was presented as a reaction to an undoubtedly fraudulent election. Upon seizing power, the self-appointed ‘Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions’ stated that the vote hadn’t met ‘the conditions for a transparent, credible and inclusive ballot’ and announced its annulment, along with the dissolution of executive, legislative, judicial and electoral institutions and the closure of the country’s borders, a move reversed a few days later.
Bongo was placed under house arrest along with his eldest son and advisor before being released and allowed to leave the country on medical grounds. Several top officials have been arrested on charges of treason, corruption and various illicit activities, and large quantities of cash have been reportedly seized from their homes.
General Brice Oligui Nguema, the coup leader and commander of the Republican Guard, the body in charge of protecting the president, is the head of the supposedly transitional junta now in power. He invoked Bongo’s incapacity following his stroke, his manipulation of the constitution to seek a third term and the dubious quality of the election as reasons for the coup. He also assured that the dissolution of institutions was only ‘temporary’, promising that these would soon be reorganised and made ‘more democratic’. There would be elections, he said, but not too soon, or otherwise the same people would be back in power in no time. First a new constitution would have to be drafted, along with a new criminal code and electoral legislation, and only then would elections become a possibility.
While celebrations broke out in the streets of Libreville, Gabon’s capital, and other towns across the country, the international condemnation was swift, starting with United Nations’ Secretary-General António Guterres, who acknowledged Gabon’s ‘governance challenges’ while stating that a coup would only make them worse. The main continental body, the African Union, suspended Gabon until constitutional order is restored, as did the Economic Community of Central African States, headquartered in Libreville.
Condemnation also came from the EU and several of its member states, starting with France, and the Commonwealth, which Gabon was allowed to join in June 2022 despite not complying with minimum democracy and human rights standards. The UK joined the chorus, along with Canada, the USA and even China. So did the president of Nigeria, Bola Tinubu, expressing concern about the ‘autocratic contagion’ spreading across Africa. Tinubu is currently leading efforts by the Economic Community of West African States to reverse the recent coup in Niger.
Some observers argue that this coup was different from others in Central and West Africa on the basis that it wasn’t based on any claim by the military that the ousted government had failed to get to grips with insurgency or insecurity. In that respect, it may be distinct from other coups that have seen rapid changes in political and military alliances, as in the several cases where unpopular French troops have been rapidly replaced by Russian mercenaries.
Supporters of the coup stress that, distinctly, it was triggered by concerns about the democratic process: both the fraudulent elections, with patience finally exhausted after more than half a century of dynastic rule, and the fact that corruption and mismanagement had prevented institutions meeting people’s basic demands. This is the position many in civil society are taking, placing them at odds with the international institutions they accuse of having tolerated the Bongos for so long.
But others disagree, even if they’re happy to see the Bongos go. The opposition candidate widely believed to have been the real election winner, Albert Ondo Ossa, soon expressed his disappointment at what he described as a ‘palace revolution’ and a ‘family affair’. He’d hoped for a recount, which he thought if done properly – with independent observers present and full transparency – would have granted him victory and placed him at the head of a new, democratic government. What he saw instead was a transitional government that could be seen as a continuation of the ousted regime, not least because of the family links between the Bongos and General Nguema, also the happy owner of a fortune of unknown origins.
The appointments that have followed appear to confirm Ossa’s suspicions. Raymond Ndong Sima, Ali Bongo’s prime minister until he joined the opposition, was reappointed at the head of a mixed government including military officers, people from civil society and former opposition leaders – although not from Ossa’s coalition – as well as people linked to the Bongo regime.
As well as concerns over its composition, there’s also the question of how long this government intends to last. The pomp of Nguema’s inauguration ceremony belies its avowedly temporary tenure. Time and again in the continent’s recent coups the military has come to power promising a rapid transition only to keep delaying the timetable.
The coup government has so far shown a moderate face, but there’s no guarantee this will last. On taking over, the military has seized not only political power but also control of the economic wealth that sustained the Bongo kleptocracy. They’re unlikely to let go willingly, and the longer they stay, the harder it will be to unseat them. And if the people who took to the streets to celebrate the coup ultimately do so again to protest at the lack of real change, repression will surely follow.
The international community must continue to urge the military to commit to a plan for a rapid transition to fully democratic rule. Otherwise, the danger is that the Gabonese people will merely move from one dictatorship to another, and nothing will remain of the fleeting moment when freedom seemed within reach.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The military junta must begin a rapid transition process to transfer power to a democratically elected civilian government.
The military junta must allow for wide civil society involvement and the expression of a diversity of views in the transition process.
Regional bodies must play a strong oversight role to ensure Gabon holds free, fair and competitive elections.
Cover photo by AFP/Getty Images