Doubts over fresh start for Gabon after coup

Harris Marley
Harris Marley

Global Courant

A month after the overthrow of Gabon’s President Ali Bongo, it is still too early to tell whether the 30 August coup represents a real break with the 56-year rule of the Bongo family in the resource-rich Central African country.

Military officers calling themselves the Committee for Transition and Restoration of Institutions (CTRI) appeared on state TV at 3.15am on the morning of 30 August to announce the overthrow of President Bongo, the dissolution of the government and the annulment of the presidential election that had taken place the previous weekend.

“Ultimately, [President Bongo] has failed to cling to power due to growing popular frustration that [Gabon’s] vast oil wealth has failed to trickle down to ordinary Gabonese,” Maja Bovcon, senior Africa analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, told African Business at the time.

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Bongo, the incumbent, had been declared winner of the presidential election with 64.27% of the vote in a contest that observers said had been marred with irregularities.

Profits of development unevenly spread

Gabon is one of Africa’s major oil producers and a member of the Organisation of Oil Exporting Countries (Opec), with production of 211,000 barrels/day in July.

Its vast tropical rainforests, which cover 88% of a territory larger than the United Kingdom, have also led to it becoming a pioneer in the field of ecotourism and a developer of carbon credits that can be sold to companies in the developed world that wish to offset their emissions. In August, it agreed a $500m debt-for-nature swap under which it refinanced debt in order to conserve its marine resources via the creation of the Gabon Blue Bond.

However, under the Bongo family’s rule the country has failed to meet its economic potential, and the profits from development have been unevenly spread.

The president’s father, Omar Bongo, took power in 1967 and ruled until his death in 2009. For much of that time the country was a single-party state, where members of the opposition were variously subject to arrest, assassinated or bought off. Bongo senior presided over an oil boom and built a vast personal fortune from public resources and kickbacks, as revealed, for example, in evidence given at the trial of Loik Le Floch-Prigent, the former head of the French national oil company, then known as Elf, in 2003.

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In 2021, Ali Bongo was named in the Pandora Papers, a collection of nearly 12m documents leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICTJ) that exposed the secret offshore holdings of 35 world leaders. The “Bongo system” says the ICTJ, was the popular term for the “unbridled accumulation of wealth”.

Allegations of ‘palace coup’

Members of the Bongo family and senior administrators have been arrested on charges of embezzlement and corruption, although the junta has said that Ali Bongo, who has been released from initial house arrest, is free to travel abroad to seek medical care.

However, while the CTRI have said they took power inspired by the “desire for change” of the Gabonese people, many commentators are likening their takeover to a palace coup.

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General Brice Oligui Nguema, who was sworn in as transitional head of state on 4 September, is rumoured to be a distant relative of the Bongo family, and was close not only to the deposed president as head of the elite presidential guard, but also to his father.

“Is this coup really marking the end of the Bongo dynasty or are we just seeing the latest rivalry between different factions of the Bongo family?” mused Bovcon of Verisk Maplecroft.

Members of the former government have been replaced, including the British-Gabonese environmental minister Lee White, who presided over the creation of the country’s carbon credits programme and had been vocal in calling for rich countries to come forward with the $100bn in climate financing originally promised to the developing world in 2009.

But Albert Ondo Ossa, the opposition candidate at the recent election, of which he claims to be the real winner, has not been brought into government, and told Al Jazeera he believed the coup had been orchestrated by the deposed president’s sister.

“Basically, I think the Bongo family got rid of one of its members who was weighing on the family, and they wanted Bongo power to continue… It was a palace revolution, not a coup d’etat. This is a family affair, where one brother replaces another,” he told the news channel.

While recognising the coup had been greeted by celebrations, he predicted that the people would soon realise the Bongo family was in power by proxy. He called for a return to democratic rule, but the new government has said that it does not expect to hold elections for two years.

Business as usual?

Shares in many of the 80+ French companies active Gabon dropped sharply in value immediately after the coup. However, French miner Eramet, which produces manganese in Gabon, which said on the day of the coup that it would cease operations as a precaution, soon announced that it would recommence production.

And according to Bloomberg, multinational oil and gas company Tullow Oil’s assets in the country remain unaffected by the coup.

“Everything has been business as usual, there’s been a number of cargo liftings,” CEO Rahul Dhir told the media company in an interview. “We’ve obviously watched carefully, but it’s been fine.”

The country accounts for around a quarter of Tullow’s crude production, with Bloomberg reporting that the company had gained approval to extend some of its licenses to 2046 shortly before the coup.

Although discontentment with the the Bongo family rule was running high, “the inspiration for the coup likely came from the Sahel, where we have witnessed a spate of coups over the past three years” commented Bovcon.

However, Gabon’s situation provides a number of contrasts with the Sahel. Its security situation is unperturbed by the jihadist insurrections spread across that region. Furthermore, even if its $9,000 per capita income is thinly spread, this is still 10 times more than that of a country such as Mali, points out Charlie Robertson, head of macro stategy at investment managers FIM Partners UK.

And topping all of this, according to Robertson, is its financial importance to Western countries: “At last a coup has happened which financial markets actually care about,” he commented on the morning of the coup, noting that Gabon’s international bonds had dived.  

“The inability of the international community and regional bodies to restore democracy in coup-hit nations like Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger has encouraged military officers to seize power without fearing repercussions,” says Bovcon.

World leaders have condemned the coup. The chair of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat, has condemned it as “a flagrant violation of the legal and political instruments of the African Union” but so far no sanctions have been announced.

Doubts over fresh start for Gabon after coup

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