Gabon military coup explained as President Ali Bongo overthrown

Members of the military in the west African nation of Gabon took to national television on Wednesday morning to announce they had taken control of the country, effectively deposing President Ali Bongo and ending his family’s 56-year grip on power.

Army officers clad in camouflage fatigues said that they had annulled the results of a recent election which saw Bongo win a third term, and were dissolving “all the institutions of the republic.” Bongo has not spoken publicly about the coup and his whereabouts are as yet unknown.

According to various reports, crowds in the Gabonese capital of Libreville took to the streets to celebrate the regime change. Prior to the televised announcement, gunfire was heard in the city center, the Associated Press reported.

However, the coup may not be plain sailing for the mutinous military faction: the BBC reported the sounds of gunshots ringing out in Libreville following the broadcast, though it remains unclear whether this was belligerent or celebratory in nature.

Ali Bongo Gabon
Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba delivers a speech at the Nzang Ayong stadium in Libreville on July 10, 2023,. His whereabouts are not known after a military coup was announced on TV on Wednesday morning.
STEEVE JORDAN/AFP via Getty Images

What Do We Know so Far?

In their televised address, the military coup representatives said Gabon’s borders “are closed until further notice.”

A person at Libreville’s Léon-Mba International Airport who spoke to AP said all flights in and out of the city had been cancelled for Wednesday. Flightradar24 shows at least one delay and two cancellations, with five planes stuck on the ground at the airport.

Meanwhile, private intelligence firm Ambrey told the news outlet that the capital’s port had halted operations and ships had been denied permission to leave.

The soldiers assuming control of the nation said they were representatives of the Committee of Transition and the Restoration of Institutions, comprised of members of Gabon’s various security forces.

Why Has the Coup Happened?

The coup appears to be a reaction to Saturday’s election, in which the nation’s electoral commission declared Bongo the winner with two-thirds of the vote. However, his main political rival, Albert Ondo Ossa, claimed the election had been subject to fraud to keep Bongo in power.

The opposition contender took to social media while votes were still being cast to complain that the election had been intentionally disorganized by the government, with many polling stations lacking ballot papers with his name on.

Shortly after his comments, internet access in Gabon was restricted to counter the spread of “false information,” Communications Minister Rodrigue Mboumba Bissawou said, while a curfew was imposed, Agence France-Presse reported.

Access to French news channels was also restricted over an alleged “lack of objectivity,” while Reporters Without Borders said the Gabonese government had refused foreign journalists accreditation to cover the election.

Albert Ondo Ossa
Albert Ondo Ossa, candidate for the Alternance 2023 opposition grouping in Gabon speaks to the media in Libreville on August 18, 2023. He claimed an election on Saturday, which saw Bongo win a third term, was subject to fraud.
STEEVE JORDAN/AFP via Getty Images

Addressing the public, one of the Army officers who appeared on television attributed the coup to the “irresponsible, unpredictable governance resulting in a continuing deterioration in social cohesion that risks leading the country into chaos,” according to a translation by the BBC.

Gabon is only the latest African nation to be subject to a military coup, after Sudan faced an armed revolt in April and Niger a takeover by a junta in July.

It joins Chad, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali among the former French colonies in the region to face political turmoil in recent years.

Critics have attributed the coups in part to reticence towards France’s continued involvement in the governments of its former colonies, while several, including Gabon, have joined the Commonwealth despite having no historic links to Britain—viewed as a pivot away from the Francophone world.

Gabon gained its independence from France in 1960, and was led by Bongo’s father, Omar, since 1967. Bongo assumed the presidency after his father died in 2009, and was narrowly re-elected for a second term in 2016 in an election that was also subject to claims of fraud.

What Does It Mean for the U.S.?

It remains unclear how many American nationals are currently in Gabon, and how they might leave were the situation to deteriorate. It was only on August 2 that U.S. deputy national security adviser Jon Finer met with Bongo to discuss “ways to deepen and strengthen our partnership.”

The U.S. Embassy in Libreville did not immediately respond to a request for comment when approached by Newsweek on Wednesday. It has yet to comment publicly on the coup.

Gabon coup
Residents applaud members of the security forces in the Plein Ciel district of Libreville on August 30, 2023 after a group of Gabonese military officers appeared on television announcing they were “putting an end to the current regime.”
AFP via Getty Images

Gabon is a small export market for the U.S., accounting for around $129 million in trade from America in 2019. The same year, imports from Gabon totalled $120 million.

The oil-rich nation has typically supplied ores and manganese, while it primarily imports machinery, meat and railway equipment, according to the U.S. Trade Representative—suggesting American heavy industry could see a hit to exports if the new regime cuts financial ties. French mining company Eramet, which owns one of the world’s largest manganese mines in Gabon, has suspended operations over safety concerns.

In mid-August, Bank of America announced it had brokered a novel deal with the Gabonese government to refinance $500 million of sovereign debt so that $125 million could go towards local ocean conservation.

A spokesperson for the bank declined to comment on whether the coup would throw the agreement into uncertainty when approached by Newsweek, suggesting it was too soon to tell.

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