Officers in Gabon announce a military coup and arrest President Ali Bongo

  • The Bongo family ruled the country for 56 years
  • Junta appoints General Brice Olegoy Nguema as leader
  • From house arrest, Bongo pleads for support
  • France, which has troops in Gabon, condemns the coup

LIBREVILLE (Reuters) – Military officers in oil-producing Gabon said they seized power on Wednesday, placing President Ali Bongo under house arrest and appointing a new leader after the central African country’s electoral commission declared Bongo a third term.

The officers, saying they represented the armed forces, announced on television that the election results had been annulled, borders closed and state institutions dissolved, after a tense vote that was set to extend the Bongo family’s rule for more than half a century.

Within hours, the generals met to discuss who would lead the transition, and unanimously agreed to appoint General Brice Olegy Nguema, the former head of the presidential guard, according to another televised speech.

Meanwhile, from his detention at his residence, Bongo in a video statement appealed to foreign allies, imploring them to speak on his behalf and his family. He said he didn’t know what was happening.

Bongo’s plight marked a dramatic turnaround from the early hours of Wednesday when the electoral commission declared him the winner of Saturday’s disputed vote.

Hundreds of people celebrated the army’s intervention in the streets of the Gabonese capital, Libreville, while the United Nations, the African Union and France, Gabon’s former colonial ruler which has forces stationed there, condemned the coup.

The military seizure of power in Gabon is the eighth in West and Central Africa since 2020, and the second – after Niger – in as many months. Military officers have also seized power in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Chad, erasing democratic gains made since the 1990s and sparking fear among foreign powers with strategic interests in the region.

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“I’m walking today because I feel happy,” said Jules Lebege, an unemployed 27-year-old who joined the crowds in Libreville. “After almost 60 years, the Bongos are out of power.”

Bongo took power in 2009 after the death of his father, Omar, who had ruled the country since 1967. Opponents say the family did little to share the state’s oil and mining wealth with its 2.3 million people.

Violent unrest erupted after Bongo’s disputed election victory in 2016, and there was a failed coup attempt in 2019.

The Gabonese officers, who call themselves the Transition and Institutional Restoration Committee, said the country was facing a “severe institutional, political, economic and social crisis” and that the vote held on August 26 was not credible.

They also said they had arrested President Noureddine Bongo’s son Valentin and others on charges of corruption and treason.

There was no immediate comment from the Gabon government.

The Gabonese army is seen on television announcing that they have seized power after the re-election of President Ali Bongo Ondimba, in this photo obtained by Reuters on August 30, 2023. Gabon 1ere/Handout via REUTERS Obtain licensing rights

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Inversion “infection”

Bongo, 64, was last seen casting his vote on Saturday. Before the vote, he appeared healthier than his poor TV appearance after suffering a stroke in 2018.

Unlike Niger and other Sahel countries, Gabon, which lies to the south on the Atlantic coast, has not had to fight destabilizing Islamist insurgencies. But the coup is another sign of democratic decline in the troubled region.

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Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, the current head of ECOWAS, said the “contagion of authoritarianism” was spreading across Africa. He said he was working closely with other African leaders on how to respond in Gabon.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the African Union condemned the events and called on the military to ensure the safety of Bongo and his family, while China and Russia said they hoped for a quick return to stability. The United States said the situation was very worrying.

French government spokesman Olivier Veran said, “We condemn the military coup and recall our commitment to holding free and transparent elections.”

The coup creates further uncertainty about the French presence in the region. France has about 350 soldiers in Gabon. Its forces were expelled from Mali and Burkina Faso after coups there in the past two years.

French mining company Eramit, which has large manganese operations in Gabon, said it had suspended operations.

Gabon produces about 200,000 barrels of oil per day, most of it from depleted fields. Among the international companies are France’s Total Energy and Anglo-French Perenco.

Concerns were raised about the transparency of the weekend elections due to the lack of international observers, the suspension of some foreign broadcasts, the decision to cut off internet service and the imposition of a night-time curfew after the vote. Bongo’s team rejected the fraud allegations.

On Wednesday, the internet appeared to be working for the first time since the vote. The military junta confirmed that access to the Internet as well as all international broadcasts had been restored, but said it would keep the curfew in place until further notice.

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Shortly before the coup was announced, the electoral body announced that Bongo had won the election with 64.27% of the votes, and said that his main competitor, Albert Ondo Osa, had won 30.77%.

Gabon’s dollar-denominated bonds fell as much as 14 cents on Wednesday before recovering to trade down 9.5 cents on the dollar.

(Additional reporting by Alessandra Prentice, Edward McAllister, Elizabeth Pineau, Felix Onuah, Sophia Christensen, Sudeep Kar Gupta, Liz Lee and Ingrid Melander) Writing by Nellie Beaton, Sophia Christensen and Alessandra Prentice. Edited by Simon Cameron-Moore, Edmund Blair and Mark Heinrich

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