DAKAR, Senegal — Gabonese awoke Thursday to a new military leader after mutinous soldiers ousted a president whose family had ruled the oil-rich Central African nation for more than five decades.
The new leader is Gen. Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema, head of the elite republican guard unit, who soldiers announced on state TV Wednesday, hours after President Ali Bongo Ondimba was declared winner of last week’s presidential election, which Gabonese and observers say was marred with irregularities and a lack of transparency.
The soldiers accused Bongo of irresponsible governance that risked leading the country into chaos and have put him under house arrest and detained several people in his cabinet, they said.
While there were legitimate grievances about the vote and Bongo’s rule, his ousting is just a pretext to claim power for themselves, Gabon experts say.
“The timing of the coup, following the announcement of the implausible electoral results, and the speed with which the junta is moving suggests this was planned in advance,” said Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. “While there are many legitimate grievances about the vote and Bongo’s rule, that has little to do with the coup attempt in Gabon. Raising those grievances is just a smokescreen,” he said.
Gabon’s coup is the eighth military takeover in Central and West Africa in three years and comes roughly a month after Niger’s democratically elected president was ousted. Unlike Niger and neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, which have each had two coups apiece since 2020 and are being overrun by extremist violence, Gabon was seen as relatively stable.
However, Bongo’s family has been accused of endemic corruption and not letting the country’s oil wealth trickle down to the population of some 2 million people.
Bongo 64, has served two terms since coming to power in 2009 after the death of his father, who ruled the country for 41 years, and there has been widespread discontent with his reign. Another group of mutinous soldiers attempted a coup in 2019 but was quickly overpowered.
The former French colony is a member of OPEC, but its oil wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few — and nearly 40% of Gabonese aged 15 to 24 were out of work in 2020, according to the World Bank. Its oil export revenue was $6 billion in 2022, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Gabon’s coup and the overturning of a dynastic leader, such as Bongo, appeared to have struck a nerve across the continent that coups in more remote, volatile West Africa previously hadn’t.
Hours after soldiers in Gabon announced the new leader, president of neighboring Cameroon, Paul Biya, who’s been in power for 40 years, shuffled his military leadership, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame “accepted the resignation” of a dozen generals and more than 80 other senior military officers. Even Djibouti’s Ismail Omar Guelleh, in power in the tiny former French colony in the Horn of Africa since 1999, condemned the coup in Gabon and denounced the recent trend of military takeovers.
Still, on Wednesday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said it was too early to call the attempted coup in Gabon a trend.
“It’s just too soon to do a table slap here and say, ‘yep, we’ve got a trend here going’ or ‘yep, we’ve got a domino effect,’” he said.
Since Bongo was toppled, the streets of Gabon’s capital, Libreville, have been jubilant with people celebrating alongside the army.
“Today we can only be happy,” said John Nze, a resident. “The country’s past situation handicapped everyone. There were no jobs. If the Gabonese are happy, it’s because they were hurting under the Bongos”.
Associated Press journalists Cara Anna in Nairobi, Kenya, and Will Weissert in Washington contributed to this report.