A military coup threw the central African nation of Gabon into chaos on Wednesday, ousting the president – whose family has held power for more than half a century – just minutes after he won a disputed election.
Deposed President Ali Bongo Ondimba, also known as Ali Bongo, has been accused of election fraud and corruption since he began ruling the oil-rich but impoverished country nearly 14 years ago. In the aftermath of the coup, residents of the country’s capital were seen celebrating and embracing soldiers in the street.
But much of the mystery remains, as Bongo is said to be under house arrest, his son arrested, all borders closed, and the government ostensibly shut down. International leaders expressed their concern and condemnation of the coup, and some of them warned their citizens in Gabon to take shelter in their places.
Here’s what you need to know.
The military takeover began on Wednesday, shortly after Gabon’s electoral authority announced that Bongo had been re-elected as president following last weekend’s polls.
And men in uniform announced on national television that they had seized power. They said the election results were annulled, all borders were closed, and many government bodies, including both chambers of parliament, were dissolved.
The coup leaders said Bongo was placed under house arrest, surrounded by “family and doctors”. The son of the ousted president, Noureddine Bongo Valentin, was arrested, along with six others, on charges of “high treason.”
A video clip broadcast by Agence France-Presse shows Bongo sitting in what looks like a library, saying that he is “in the residence” and does not know what was happening. He said: “My son is in one place, and my wife is in another place.”
It was not immediately clear under what circumstances the clip was filmed.
Meanwhile, the junta appointed General Brice Olegoy Nguema – who was once the bodyguard of Bongo’s late father, the former governor of Gabon – as transitional leader.
Speaking to France’s Le Monde newspaper on Wednesday, Olegy claimed Bongo enjoys “all his rights” as an “ordinary Gabonese” citizen.
Videos of the celebration in Gabon circulated online on Wednesday, including footage of soldiers carrying Olegoy 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 one of the videos obtained by CNN, people can be seen chanting “Liberators!” And waving the flag of Gabon in the Nzing Ayung district of the capital, along with military vehicles.
Similar scenes were repeated in other parts of Gabon, including Port-Gentil, the second largest city.
Some members of the Gabonese community also celebrated on Wednesday, as students from Gabon gathered outside the country’s embassy in Dakar, Senegal.
One of the students said, referring to the political party to which Bongo belongs, according to Reuters: “I assure you that what the Gabonese people wanted is for Bongo’s democratic democratic regime to leave power.” “Because as we said, 60 years is too much.”
It’s hard to say – and there’s still so much we don’t know.
For example, questions remain about what might happen to Gabon’s parliament and its governmental institutions; What will happen to the country’s leadership? and what awaits Bongo and his family; And what does the coup mean for Gabon’s international standing and its diplomatic relations in light of the widespread criticism of military action from other countries?
A spokesman for the military council said that the army is imposing a curfew from 6 pm to 6 am and the borders will remain closed “until further notice”. However, Olegoy ordered that the signal be restored to international radio and television channels.
Ali Bongo, 64, assumed power to succeed his father, Omar Bongo, who died of a heart attack while receiving treatment for bowel cancer in Span in 2009, after nearly 42 years in office.
Bongo Sr. came to power in 1967, seven years after Gabon gained its independence from France.
He ruled the tiny country with an iron fist, imposing a one-party system for years and only allowing pluralistic rule in 1991, though his party retained its grip on 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 Gabon Embassy website in the United States.
But the Bongos have their fair share of criticism, especially in light of the country’s massive wealth gap. A French financial police investigation 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 euros. According to Reuters.
Each of Ali Bongo’s three electoral victories has been deeply contested, and sometimes controversial Violent protests nationwide. The opposition denounced the elections that took place this week, describing them as rigged. Bongo’s team rejected allegations of electoral irregularities.
Similarly in 2016, after Bongo won the election, his main rival said the country’s Constitutional Court’s decision to certify the disputed result was “biased”. Another failed coup attempt against Bongo took place in 2019.
France’s former colonies in Africa have experienced multiple coups over the past three years – Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Tunisia, and now Gabon – that threaten to reverse the continent’s two decades of democratization.
Coups were rampant in Africa in the early post-colonial decades, with coup leaders giving similar reasons for overthrowing governments: corruption, mismanagement and poverty, according to political analyst Remy Adekoya.
He wrote for CNN in 2021 that these justifications still resonate with many Africans today — and in many countries, people feel these problems are getting worse. At the same time, the population on the world’s youngest continent is growing, intensifying already fierce competition for resources.
These conditions have helped drive more recent coups – many young Africans are disillusioned with allegedly corrupt leaders and ready for radical change, as we saw in the celebrations in Gabon on Wednesday, and similar celebrations after Guinea’s coup two years ago.
Gabon’s coup has been widely criticized by other African countries and in the West. The African Union, which represents 55 member states, held an emergency meeting on Wednesday, in which the head of its commission condemned the coup “firmly.”
Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat said in a statement that the seizure of power is a “flagrant violation of the legal and political instruments of the African Union.” He called on the Gabonese army to guarantee Ali Bongo’s safety and return to a “democratic constitutional order”.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres also condemned the coup on Wednesday, 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 “strongly opposes a military takeover or unconstitutional transfer of power,” urging the coup leaders to “preserve civilian rule.” “The United States stands with the people of Gabon,” he added.
The US Embassy in Gabon advised its citizens in the country to shelter in place and limit “unnecessary movements around the city.” It said on its website that Americans in Gabon should “keep a low profile… avoid demonstrations… make contingency plans to leave… (and) make evacuation plans that do not depend on US government assistance.”
European leaders made similar statements. The UK condemned the coup and urged the restoration of the government, while the EU’s top diplomat warned that the coup would “increase instability in the entire region”. Meanwhile, Spain said it would “evaluate” its military missions in Africa in the wake of the recent coups on the continent.