Gabon Coup Attempt a Potential Early Warning Sign

Gabonese soldiers stand in front of the headquarters of the national broadcaster on January 7, 2019 after a group of soldiers sought to take power in Gabon. (STEVE JORDAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In the early hours of January 7, a contingent of Gabonese soldiers stormed the state radio station in Libreville, Gabon’s capital. In a public broadcast soon after, a soldier identifying himself as Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang announced that his self-declared Patriotic Movement of the Defense and Security Forces of Gabon was restoring democracy to the country. He also called on his military counterparts and the Gabonese citizenry to support what he termed “Operation Dignity,” which he said would address Gabon’s “illegitimate and illegal” institutions.

Within hours of his address, Obiang’s attempt at a coup d’état was thwarted by the same soldiers who he called upon to support it. Ultimately, Obiang and seven of his co-conspirators were arrested and two other soldiers who supported his coup attempt were killed by the national army. In a public statement at around midday on January 7, communications minister Guy-Bertrand Mapangou confirmed that the situation in Libreville and the country was under control.

As in other places where coups have taken place, the attempt in Gabon occurred in a context of adverse socioeconomic conditions, weak democratic processes, and broad, unchecked executive power. In Gabon now, popular grievances are pervasive and democratic institutions lack independence.

In terms of socioeconomic conditions, the Gabonese state has found itself in a precarious economic crisis which the government of President Ali Bongo Ondimba has sought external funding to resolve. The funding to cover public spending is necessary to mitigate the effects of a widespread austerity program announced in June 2018. The program came with broad staff reductions in the civil sector and cuts to welfare initiatives.

Since its launch, the austerity program has been widely condemned and the country’s unions have laid the blame for the economic crisis squarely at the feet of Bongo’s government, who they have accused of gross economic mismanagement. Unitary Dynamics, the country’s largest labor union, launched a series of protests in Libreville and other urban centers as a result. The most recent was prevented by security forces in the capital on December 18.

Democratic processes are also absent for the most part in Gabon. In the country’s most recent national elections in August 2016, President Bongo secured a controversial victory over opposition leader Jean Ping in a first-past-the-post ballot which saw Bongo win by a mere 6,000 votes. In the initial count, Ping seemed poised to displace Bongo after securing the majority of the vote in six of the country’s nine provinces. However, Bongo emerged victorious after securing 95.46 percent of the vote in his home province of Haut-Ogooue, where the voter turnout was 99.93 percent, in comparison to the national average of just above 59 percent. As expected, the result has and continues to be rejected by Ping who declared himself the rightful winner of the vote and Gabon’s legitimate president, despite the Gabonese judiciary ruling against his electoral appeal.

Executive power is also an issue in Gabon. The allocation of executive power has been opaque following the hospitalization of President Bongo in Saudi Arabia last October. Initially described as a case of exhaustion by the office of the president, sources at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre indicated that President Bongo had suffered a stroke the night before he was scheduled to participate in a panel at Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative. The diagnosis was later confirmed by a source close to First Lady Sylvia Bongo in an interview with Agence France-Presse.

Reports on Bongo’s health raised serious questions about his capacity to hold office, with rumors even suggesting that the president had passed away and that the delay in announcing his death was due to the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) being unable to formulate a smooth succession plan. While a political transition due to the death of the president is not rare in Gabon—Bongo himself came to power in 2009 via a constitutionally mandated process after the death of his father, Omar Bongo Ondimba—repeating the formula this time around was apparently difficult.

The main complicating factor in this regard was the National Assembly. Elections for its members were supposed to be held nearly two years ago but only took place in October of last year. Consequently, during the president’s hiatus it was unclear whether seated members of the National Assembly had—as per the constitution—the legitimate mandate to initiate a succession process, or whether the powers sat with those elected in October who would only be formally sworn in on January 16.

Political divisions have also been laid bare by the debate over an heir. There were rumors of dissatisfaction with Bongo’s chosen heir since it was widely suggested that, akin to his father, he wanted to hand over the mantle to his son, Noureddin Edouard Bongo-Valentin. The twenty-five-year-old was said to have already assumed residency in the Presidential Palace—the only one of Bongo’s children to have done so—and to have accompanied his father to official events. Importantly, in the most recent set of reforms passed by Bongo, the age limit for candidates to be eligible for the Gabonese presidency was lowered from 40 to 18 years, a conspicuous move given Noureddine Bongo’s age.

There are even those in the PDG who are not pleased with the prospect of the Bongo dynasty continuing beyond its current five-decade reign. Party insiders confirmed to me that both former Prime Minister Emmanuel Issoze-Ngondet and Presidential Cabinet director, Brice Laccruche Alihanga, had eyes on the presidency. Bongo’s half-brother, Frédéric Bongo, has also set a stiff challenge. Given his position as head of the country’s intelligence service and his close relationship with top Gabonese military brass, it has been claimed that he was a firm favorite to take over the presidency.

While President Bongo countered rumors of his death and/or incapacitation by releasing media footage from Morocco where he was continuing his medical treatment, and he has since returned to Gabon, concerns regarding his political longevity persist. In fact, it was the president’s New Year’s Eve address to the Gabonese people—which he seemed to deliver with difficulty—that Lieutenant Obiang cited as the motivation for his attempted power grab.

While the coup attempt appears to have been carried out by an isolated group of soldiers, it is indicative of growing frustration with the Bongo administration. By this point, this frustration may have permeated all sectors of Gabonese society, including those who have served as the guarantors of the Bongo family dynasty. The degree of grievances with the government are also unlikely to be resolved, particularly given the prevailing socioeconomic conditions in the country. Add to that the questions regarding the capacity of the president to resolve these quandaries, and last week’s coup attempt might be a sign of worsening instability for the Bongo family’s dynastic reign over Gabon.