Gabon’s Bongo dynasty latest to fall amid wave of military coups

Harris Marley

Global Courant

Military officers calling themselves the Committee for Transition and Restoration of Institutions (CTRI) appeared on state TV at 3.15am local time in Gabon to announce the overthrow of President Ali Bongo and the annulment of last Saturday’s presidential election.

“All the institutions of the republic are dissolved: in particular the government, the Senate, the National Assembly, the Constitutional Court, Economic and Social and Environmental Council, and the Elections Council of Gabon,” announced Colonel Ulrich Manfoumbi.

“We call on the population of Gabon, the communities of neighboring countries living in Gabon, as well as the Gabonese diaspora, to remain calm.”

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The CTRI has appointed General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema, head of the elite Presidential Guard, as its leader, while President Bongo has been placed under house arrest.

The coup marks the end of 56 years of autocratic rule by the Bongo family in the oil-rich Central African country. It also poses fresh problems for the international community in deciding how to respond to increasingly frequent military overthrows in Africa as well as headaches for investors in the oil-dominated economy.

What caused the coup?

Crowds took to the streets to celebrate the coup, which came just hours after the announcement of provisional results for the Saturday election. The country’s electoral commission had declared President Bongo the winner with 64.27% of the vote after a contest widely condemned for its irregularities.

Few international observers were allowed into the country to monitor the vote and last-minute changes were made to the electoral process. On election day many election centres failed to open on time, leaving many voters to queue for hours. In addition, the government cut internet services and ordered a nationwide curfew as the polls closed, using the threat of violence as a pretext.

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 subject to arrest and even assassination. Bongo senior presided over an oil boom at the head of a notoriously corrupt regime and was accounted one of the wealthiest rulers in the world.

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Gabon enjoys abundant natural resources. Not only is it Africa’s fourth largest oil producer, but 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 the developer of carbon credits that can be sold to companies in the developed world that wish to offset their emissions.

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

“Ultimately, [Ali Bongo] has failed to cling to power due to growing popular frustration that the vast oil wealth has failed to trickle down to ordinary Gabonese,” comments Maja Bovcon, senior Africa analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft.

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But 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” she adds.

Why is the coup significant?

However, Gabon’s situation provides a number of contrasts with the Sahel. Its security situation is unperturbed by the jihadist insurrections spread across the Sahelian 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 Roberson, is its financial importance to Western countries: “At last a coup has happened which financial markets actually care about – because Gabon has outstanding Eurobonds whose prices have dived this morning. The price of the 2025 Gabon Eurobond has been marked down by traders by 10%, from 93 cents to 84 cents (up slightly from 79-82 cent range two hours ago).”

And both Robertson and Bovcon concur in seeing the coup as a thorny policy problem for the international community.

“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.

Bongo has appeared in a video calling upon his “friends all over the world” to “make noise” on his behalf.

The coup has been condemned by former colonial power France, while the EU, Russia and China have all expressed concerns, and French mining company Eramet has temporarily ceased operations in the country due to security concerns. French oil giant TotalEnergies says its main priority is to ensure the safety of its 350 employees and operations in Gabon.

The chair of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat, has condemned the coup as “a flagrant violation of the legal and political instruments of the African Union” and called on all parties “to give priority to peaceful political avenues, and a rapid return to democratic constitutional order in the country”.

What can the international community do?

For Robertson, sanctions on Gabon would make paying the interest on its Eurobonds more complicated, while suspending aid has not worked in the case of Sahelian countries such as Niger. Cutting off Gabon’s oil exports would have negative repercussions for bondholders and could be undermined by countries such as China.

Robertson says it is time for the African Union to “step up and take some responsibility for what’s happening on the continent”.

“If the African Union does not act, they’re giving carte blanche … to military officers to topple more regime,” he concludes.

Gabon’s Bongo dynasty latest to fall amid wave of military coups

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