Gabon military seizes power hours after long-serving president wins election

Gunfire heard in the capital; no word from president, whose family is under investigation in France for corruption; soldiers vow to ‘dissolve all institutions of the republic’

This video grab shows the spokesperson for the mutinous soldiers speaking on state television as they announce that they had seized power in Libreville, August 30, 2023. (GABON 24 via AP)
This video grab shows the spokesperson for the mutinous soldiers speaking on state television as they announce that they had seized power in Libreville, August 30, 2023. (GABON 24 via AP)

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Crowds celebrated in Gabon after mutinous soldiers said Wednesday they were seizing power in order to overturn the results of a presidential election, seeking to remove a president whose family has held power for 55 years.

The coup attempt came hours after the central African country’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba, 64, was declared winner of an election marred by fears of violence.

Within minutes of the announcement, gunfire was heard in the center of the capital, Libreville. Later, a dozen uniformed soldiers appeared on state television and announced that they had seized power.

Crowds in the city took to the city’s streets to celebrate the end of Bongo’s reign, singing the national anthem with soldiers.

“Thank you, army. Finally, we’ve been waiting a long time for this moment,” said Yollande Okomo, standing in front of soldiers from Gabon’s elite republican guard.

Shopkeeper Viviane Mbou offered the soldiers juice, which they declined.

“Long live our army,” said Jordy Dikaba, a young man walking with his friends on a street lined with armored policemen.

There was no word from the president and his whereabout were not immediately clear.

President of Gabon Ali Bongo Ondimba addresses the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 21, 2022 at UN headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

The private intelligence firm Ambrey said all operations at the country’s main port in Libreville had been halted, with authorities refusing to grant permission for vessels to leave. It wasn’t immediately clear if airlines were operating in the country.

The soldiers intended to “dissolve all institutions of the republic,” said a spokesman for the group, whose members were drawn from the gendarme, the republican guard and other elements of the security forces.

The coup attempt 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 that have challenged governments with ties to France, the region’s former colonizer. Gabon’s coup, if successful would bring the number of coups in West and Central Africa to eight since 2020.

In his annual Independence Day speech August 17, Bongo said “While our continent has been shaken in recent weeks by violent crises, rest assured that I will never allow you and our country Gabon to be hostages to attempts at destabilization. Never.”

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. But nearly 40% of Gabonese ages 15-24 were out of work in 2020, according to the World Bank.

Bongo acknowledged the widespread frustration over rising costs of living in his Aug. 17 speech, and listed measures his government was making to contain fuel prices, make education more affordable, and stabilize the price of baguettes.

Gabon is a member of the OPEC oil cartel, with a production of some 181,000 barrels of crude a day, making it the eighth-largest producer of oil in sub-Saharan Africa. It is home to over 2 million people, and is slightly smaller than the US state of Colorado.

At a time when anti-France sentiment is spreading in many former colonies, the French-educated Bongo met President Emmanuel Macron in Paris in late June and shared photos of them shaking hands. France has some 400 troops in in the country.

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said Wednesday: “We are following the situation in Gabon closely.″

The mutinous officers vowed to respect “Gabon’s commitments to the national and international community.”

When asked about Gabon Wednesday, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell said it would be discussed by EU ministers this week. Defense ministers from the 27-nation bloc are meeting in Spain on Wednesday, and foreign ministers on Thursday. Borrell will chair both meetings, and Niger will also be a focus.

“If this is confirmed, it’s another military coup, which increases instability in the whole region,” he said.

Bongo’s family has long-standing ties to former colonial ruler France, dating to the four-decade presidency of his late father Omar Bongo. These have come under legal scrutiny in recent years.

Several members of the Bongo family are under investigation in France, and some have been given preliminary charges of embezzlement, money laundering and other forms of corruption, according to French media reports, driven in part by a broader push for justice by non-governmental organizations that have long accused multiple African heads of state of embezzling public funds and hiding them in France.

Bongo was seeking a third term in elections this weekend. He served two terms since coming to power in 2009 after the death of his father who ruled the country for 41 years. Another group of mutinous soldiers attempted a coup in January 2019, while Bongo was in Morocco recovering from a stroke, but they were quickly overpowered.

In the election, Bongo faced an opposition coalition led by economics professor and former education minister Albert Ondo Ossa, whose surprise nomination came a week before the vote.

Every vote held in Gabon since the country’s return to a multi-party system in 1990 has ended in violence. Clashes between government forces and protesters following the 2016 election killed four people, according to official figures. The opposition said the death toll was far higher.

Fearing violence, many people in the capital went to visit family in other parts of the country before the election or left Gabon altogether. Others stockpiled food or bolstered security in their homes.

After last week’s vote, the Central African nation’s Communications Minister, Rodrigue Mboumba Bissawou, announced a nightly curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., and said internet access was being restricted indefinitely to quell disinformation and calls for violence.

NetBlocks, an organization tracking internet access worldwide, said internet service saw a “partial restoration” in Gabon after the coup.

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