MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Sep 13 2023 (IPS) – On 26 August, Gabon went through the motions of an election. Official results were announced four days later, in the middle of the night, with the country under curfew. Predictably, incumbent President Ali Bongo, in power since the death of his father and predecessor in 2009, was handed a third term. 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.
In Gabon, people welcomed the military with open arms, thanking 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. Studies show 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 and kept it for more than 40 years. 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 in 2009 and 2016. In both instances it was widely believed that Bongo wasn’t the real winner. The constitution was repeatedly amended to allow further terms and electoral rules and timetables were systematically manipulated.
In 2016, blatant fraud sparked violent protests that were even more violently repressed. In 2018, Bongo suffered a stroke that took him out of the public eye for almost a year, fuelling concerns that he might be unfit to rule. But a 2019 attempted military coup failed and was followed by a media crackdown, arrests of opposition politicians and a hardening of the Penal Code to criminalise dissent.
Under the Bongos’ dynastic reign, corruption, nepotism and predatory elite behaviour were 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, a stark contrast with the incalculable ill-gotten wealth of the Bongo family and their inner circle.
Why now and what next?
The 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’ announced the annulment of the vote and the dissolution of executive, legislative, judicial and electoral institutions.
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.
Coup leader General Brice Oligui Nguema is now the head of the supposedly transitional junta in power. He’s assured that the dissolution of institutions is only ‘temporary’ and that these will be made ‘more democratic’. There’ll be elections, he’s said, but not too soon. First a new constitution will have to be drafted, along with a new criminal code and electoral legislation.
But while celebrations broke out in the streets, the international condemnation was swift, starting with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres. The African Union suspended Gabon until constitutional order is restored, as did the Economic Community of Central African States.
Condemnation came from the European Union and several of its member states, and the Commonwealth, which Gabon was allowed to join in June 2022 despite not complying with minimum democracy and human rights standards. The president of Nigeria, Bola Tinubu, expressed 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 is different from others in Central and West Africa since it wasn’t based on security concerns but rather the absence of democracy, focused on election fraud and the corruption and mismanagement that stopped institutions meeting people’s basic demands. This is the position many in Gabonese 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, expressed his disappointment at what he described as a ‘palace revolution’ and a ‘family affair’. He’d hoped for a recount, which could have 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. Some of the new government appointments appear to confirm Ossa’s suspicions.
Beyond its composition, there’s the key question of how long this government intends to last. The pomp of Nguema’s inauguration ceremony belies its avowedly temporary tenure.
This is the eighth successful military coup in West and Central Africa over the past four years. Nowhere have the military retreated to the barracks after implementing what were invariably described as ‘corrective’ and ‘temporary’ measures.
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.
The coup government has so far shown a moderate face, but there’s no guarantee this will last. 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 that fleeting moment when freedom seemed within reach.