By YVES LAURENT GOMA and SAM MEDNICK (Associated Press)
LIBREVILLE, Gabon (AP) — Mutinous soldiers in Gabon proclaimed their republican guard chief as the country’s leader Wednesday after placing the just-reelected President Ali Bongo Ondimba under house arrest, alleging betrayal and massive embezzlement during his long-time rule over the oil-rich Central African nation.
The coup leaders said in an announcement on Gabon’s state TV that Gen. Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema had been “unanimously” designated president of a transitional committee to lead the country. Oligui is a cousin of Bongo, who earlier Wednesday had been declared the winner of the country’s latest presidential election following 55 years of rule by him and his late father.
In a video from detention in his residence, Bongo called on people to “make noise” to support him. But the crowds who took to the streets of the capital instead celebrated the coup against a dynasty accused of getting rich on the country’s resource wealth while many of its citizens struggle.
“Thank you, army. Finally, we’ve been waiting a long time for this moment,” said Yollande Okomo, standing in front of republican guard members who had helped stage the takeover.
Coup leaders said there would be a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. local time but that people would be allowed to move about freely during the day on Thursday.
“The president of the transition insists on the need to maintain calm and serenity in our beautiful country … At the dawn of a new era, we will guarantee the peace, stability and dignity of our beloved Gabon,” Lt. Col. Ulrich Manfoumbi said on state TV Wednesday.
Oligui, the new military leader, used to be the bodyguard of Bongo’s father, the late President Omar Bongo, said Desire Ename a journalist with Echos du Nord, a local media outlet. Oligui also was head of the secret service in 2019 before becoming head of the republican guard.
Ali Bongo Ondimba, 64, has served two terms since coming to power in 2009 after the death of his father, who ruled the country for 41 years, and there has been widespread discontent with his reign. Another group of mutinous soldiers attempted a coup in 2019 but was quickly overpowered.
The former French colony is a member of OPEC, but its oil wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few — and nearly 40% of Gabonese aged 15 to 24 were out of work in 2020, according to the World Bank. Its oil export revenue was $6 billion in 2022, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Nine members of the Bongo family, meanwhile, are under investigation in France, and some face preliminary charges of embezzlement, money laundering and other forms of corruption, according to Sherpa, a French NGO dedicated to accountability. Investigators have linked the family to more than $92 million in properties in France, including two villas in Nice, the group says.
A spokesman for the coup leaders said that Bongo’s “unpredictable, irresponsible governance” risked leading the country into chaos. In a later statement, the coup leaders said people around the president had been arrested for “high betrayal of state institutions, massive embezzlement of public funds (and) international financial embezzlement.”
Analysts warned that the takeover risked bringing instability, and could have more to do with divisions among the ruling elite than efforts to improve the lives of ordinary Gabonese.
The Bongo family has been associated with “systematic misappropriation of state revenues,” but the latest events “should be viewed with great caution, as they offer no guarantee of good governance and democratic transition,” Sherpa said in a statement.
The coup came about one month after mutinous soldiers in Niger seized power from the democratically elected government, and is the latest in a series of coups across West and Central Africa in recent years. The impunity those putschists enjoyed may have inspired the soldiers in Gabon, said Maja Bovcon, senior analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a risk assessment firm.
In weekend elections, Bongo faced an opposition coalition led by Albert Ondo Ossa, an economics professor and former education minister. Minutes after Bongo was declared the winner, gunfire was heard in the capital, Libreville. Later, a dozen uniformed soldiers appeared on state television to announce they had seized power.
Libreville is a stronghold of the opposition, but it was unclear how the coup was seen in the countryside, where more people traditionally back Bongo.
The president pleaded for support in a video showing him sitting in a chair with a bookshelf behind him.
“I’m calling you to make noise, to make noise, to make noise really,” he said in English. The video was shared with The Associated Press by BTP Advisers, a communications firm that helped the president with polling for the election.
Shortly after the video went public, people with Bongo had their phones seized by soldiers, said Mark Pursey, the chief executive officer of BTP Advisers. Bongo’s son and communications director were being held at military headquarters, Pursey said.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the coup, and called on military leaders to ensure the safety of Bongo and his family, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Ossa, the opposition leader, told The AP he wasn’t ready to comment and was waiting for the situation to evolve.
The mutinous officers vowed to respect “Gabon’s commitments to the national and international community.” But the coup threatened to bring the economy to a halt.
A man who answered the phone at the airport said flights were canceled Wednesday, and the private intelligence firm Ambrey said all operations at the country’s main port in Libreville had been halted. Several French companies said they were suspending operations.
“France condemns the military coup that is underway in Gabon and is closely monitoring developments,” French government spokesperson, Olivier Veran, said Wednesday.
France has maintained close economic, diplomatic and military ties with Gabon, and has 400 soldiers stationed there for a military training operation. The U.S. Africa Command said it has no forces stationed in the Central African nation other than at the U.S. Embassy.
Unlike Niger and two other West African countries run by military juntas, Gabon hasn’t been wracked by jihadi violence and had been seen as relatively stable.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the events in Gabon were being followed with “great concern.” He said it was too early to call it part of a trend or a “domino effect” in military takeovers on the continent.
A spokesperson for the State Department later released a statement saying U.S. authorities “remain strongly opposed to military seizures or unconstitutional transfers of power.”
“We urge those responsible to release and ensure the safety of members of government and their families and to preserve civilian rule,” said Matthew Miller in the statement.
Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu, however, cited a “contagion of autocracy we are seeing spread across our continent,” in a statement issued by his office. It said he was conferring with other heads of state and the African Union, whose commission condemned the coup and called for a return to “democratic constitutional order.”
Mednick reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press reporters Cara Anna in Nairobi, Kenya, Jamey Keaten in Geneva; Angela Charlton and Oleg Cetinic in Paris; and Jon Gambrell and Malak Harb in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Zane Irwin in Dakar, Senegal contributed.