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Gabon: Military the face of resistance to repressive ruling elite

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Picture: AFP – Residents hold a Gabon national flag as they celebrate in Libreville on August 30, 2023 after a group of Gabonese military officers appeared on television announcing they were “putting an end to the current regime” and scrapping official election results that had handed another term to veteran President Ali Bongo Ondimba.

By Dr Sizo Nkala

“The national and international community is hereby informed that Mr Ali Bongo Ondimba is being kept under house arrest.

“He is surrounded by his family and doctors. We the defence and security forces meeting within the Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions on behalf of the Gabonese people and guarantor of the protection of institutions have decided to defend peace by putting an end to the current regime. The general elections of August 26 2023 as well as the truncated results are cancelled. The borders are closed until further notice, all institutions of the Republic are dissolved.”

This was a statement issued by a Gabonese military spokesperson on national television on August 30. He was surrounded by about a dozen of his colleagues clad in full military gear with varying camouflage patterns, strapped in bullet-proof vests and donning red, green and black berets.

Picture: Gabon 24/AFP) – This video grab taken from Gabon 24 shows Gabonese soldiers appearing on television on August 30, 2023 announcing they were “putting an end to the current regime” and the cancellation of an election that, according to official results, President Ali Bongo Ondimba won. During the announcement, AFP journalists heard gunfire ring out in the Gabonese capital, Libreville.

It is a spectacle that has become all too common in recent years, especially in West Africa and Zimbabwe. The Gabonese military personnel announced their seizure of power in the former French colony, effectively ending President Ali Bongo’s 14-year rule and his family’s 56-year reign at the helm.

Bongo succeeded his father, Omar Bongo, who ruled Gabon from 1967 until his death in 2009, hence the widespread characterisation of Gabon’s political system as a family dynasty.

Wednesday’s coup d’état in Gabon is the ninth military takeover to have happened in the past three years in West and Central Africa, after Mali twice in August 2020 and May 2021, Chad in April 2021, Guinea in September 2021, Sudan in October 2021, Burkina Faso twice in January and September 2022 and Niger in July 2023.

Gabon’s military takeover came after the announcement of Saturday’s presidential election results in which the incumbent, Ali Bongo, was declared the winner, with 64% of the vote.

However, the results were disputed by the main opposition leader, Albert Ondo Ossa. He said they were fraudulent, and his party had won the elections.

Bongo’s re-election in 2016 was also disputed and was followed by protests which were brutally crashed by the security forces. In 2019, there was an unsuccessful coup attempt when some members of the military claimed to have ousted Bongo while he was out of the country. The attempt was promptly put down by the government and the coup leaders were detained. The credibility of the vote was marred by the shutdown of the internet, banning of international observers, and shutting foreign media. In what looks like a continuation of the family dynasty, the leaders of the coup later announced that Bongo’s cousin, General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema, had been unanimously chosen as the new leader.

The latest coup leaves us pondering, once again, on the causes of the rapidly spreading phenomenon. Perhaps one of the major factors contributing to the rise of coups is the misgovernance of the ruling elite. Gabon is one of Africa’s most important oil producers, pumping more than 200 000 barrels a day. It is also a member of the powerful oil cartel, Opec.

The country also boasts significant reserves of minerals such as diamonds, manganese and uranium. However, comprising 45% of the gross domestic product and 80% of the exports, oil is by far the biggest sector in the country. The exploitation and export of the natural resources have contributed to country’s GDP of $20 billion (R375bn) and the GDP per capita of more than $8 000 making it a middle-income country.

However, most of the citizens have seen little of the wealth. According to estimates, 20% of the country’s population hold 90% of its wealth. About 38% of the population lives below the poverty line. Due to the lack of economic diversification and overdependence on oil extraction, the unemployment rate is hovering around 23%. Corruption is also rife, as indicated by the Transparency International Index where Gabon ranked 136 out of 180 least corrupt countries. The greed of the ruling class has created a country of haves and have-nots and with it, a groundswell of discontent.

Moreover, the dependency on export revenue rather than taxes has meant that the government does not have to account to its citizens. As such, the regime has been sustained by repression rather than responsiveness to the people’s needs. It is no wonder that many Gabonese were celebrating the military’s intervention. It is easy for long-suffering and disenfranchised citizens to support the takeover of the military if their welfare is deteriorating under civilian leaders. The AU has issued a statement denouncing the coup. But the continental body has been reactive rather than proactive. It was dead silent when Bongo’s regime was cutting off the internet and banning international observers during the elections in order to disenfranchise the voters.

These are some of the root causes of the return to military regimes. It is a pity that ordinary Africans are trapped between two equally bad options.

*Dr Sizo Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies.