Mutinous soldiers claimed to have seized power in Gabon on Wednesday and put the president under house arrest, hours after he was declared the winner in an election that extended his family’s 55-year reign in the oil-rich Central African nation.
In his first public appearance since the coup attempt, President Ali Bongo Ondimba called on people to “make noise” to support him. But crowds instead took to the streets of the capital and sang the national anthem, apparently to celebrate his potential ouster.
Bongo’s family has been accused of getting rich on the country’s resource wealth while many of its citizens struggle to scrape by. The coup attempt came hours after he was declared winner of an election criticized by international observers.
Within minutes of the announcement, gunfire was heard in the center of the capital, Libreville. Later, a dozen uniformed soldiers appeared on state television and announced that they had seized power.
Crowds took to the city’s streets to celebrate the end of Bongo’s reign, singing the national anthem with soldiers.
“Thank you, army. Finally, we’ve been waiting a long time for this moment,” said Yollande Okomo, standing in front of soldiers from Gabon’s elite republican guard.
Shopkeeper Viviane Mbou offered the soldiers juice, which they declined.
“Long live our army,” said Jordy Dikaba, a young man walking with his friends on a street lined with armored policemen.
Later, Bongo pleaded for support, appearing in a video showing him sat in a chair with a book shelf behind him. He said he was in his residence and his wife and son were in different places.
“I’m calling you to make noise, to make noise, to make noise really,” he said. The video was shared with The Associated Press by BTP Advisers. a communications firm that helped the president with polling for this election
There’s been widespread discontent with the Bongo family for years and a coup attempt is not surprising, said Maja Bovcon Africa, senior analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a risk assessment firm. But she said more immediate inspiration likely came from a recent spate of coups in the Sahel, where military officers have shown that they can seize power without repercussions.
Gabon’s coup leaders can also play to doubts about the electoral process, Africa, the analyst, said. The vote was not transparent and practically held behind closed doors, she said.
Every vote held in Gabon since the country’s return to a multi-party system in 1990 has ended in violence. Clashes between government forces and protesters following the 2016 election killed four people, according to official figures. The opposition said the death toll was far higher.
“Gabon’s electoral laws and framework do not ensure credible elections,” Freedom House said in its 2023 country assessment.
The soldiers who claimed power Wednesday planned to “dissolve all institutions of the republic,” said a spokesman for the group. He said that Bongo’s “unpredictable, irresponsible governance” risked leading the country into chaos.
Gabon is a member of the OPEC oil cartel, with a production of some 181,000 barrels of crude a day, but its over 2 million people face high unemployment and rising prices. Nearly 40% of Gabonese ages 15-24 were out of work in 2020, according to the World Bank.
Several French companies said they were suspending operations and moving to ensure the safety of their staff, and a man who answered the phone at the airport said flights were canceled Wednesday. The private intelligence firm Ambrey said all operations at the country’s main port in Libreville had been halted, with authorities refusing to grant permission for vessels to leave.
A second statement by the coup leaders, who came from the gendarme, the republican guard and other elements of the security forces, said the president was under house arrest in his residence, surrounded by family and doctors. People around him have been arrested for “high betrayal of state institutions, massive embezzlement of public funds (and) international financial embezzlement” said the military, among other charges.
There has been no word from the president.
Several members of the Bongo family are under investigation in France, and some have been given preliminary charges of embezzlement, money laundering and other forms of corruption, according to French media reports.
The coup attempt came about one month after mutinous soldiers in Niger seized power from the democratically elected government, and is the latest in a series of coups that have challenged governments with ties to France, the region’s former colonizer. Gabon’s coup, if successful would bring the number of coups in West and Central Africa to eight since 2020.
Unlike Niger and two other West African countries run by military juntas, Gabon hasn’t been wracked by jihadi violence and had been seen as relatively stable.
In his annual Independence Day speech Aug. 17, Bongo said “While our continent has been shaken in recent weeks by violent crises, rest assured that I will never allow you and our country Gabon to be hostages to attempts at destabilization. Never.”
At a time when anti-France sentiment is spreading in many former colonies, the French-educated Bongo met President Emmanuel Macron in Paris in late June and shared photos of them shaking hands.
The mutinous officers vowed to respect “Gabon’s commitments to the national and international community.”
France has 400 soldiers in Gabon leading a regional military training operation. They’ve not changed their normal operations today, according to the French military.
French government spokesperson, Olivier Veran, said Wednesday: “France condemns the military coup that is underway in Gabon and is closely monitoring developments in the country, and France reaffirms its wish that the outcome of the election, once known, be respected.”
When asked about Gabon Wednesday, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell said it would be discussed by EU ministers this week. Defense ministers from the 27-nation bloc are meeting in Spain on Wednesday, and foreign ministers on Thursday. Borrell will chair both meetings, and Niger will also be a focus.
“If this is confirmed, it’s another military coup, which increases instability in the whole region,” he said.
A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, Wang Wenbin, said Wednesday that China was closely following Gabon’s situation and called on the parties to resolve the issue peacefully, keeping in mind the interests of the nation and its people.
Bongo has served two terms since coming to power in 2009 after the death of his father, who ruled the country for 41 years. Another group of mutinous soldiers attempted a coup in January 2019, while Bongo was in Morocco recovering from a stroke, but was quickly overpowered.
Bongo faced an opposition coalition led by economics professor and former education minister Albert Ondo Ossa, whose surprise nomination came a week before the vote.
Reached Wednesday, Ossa said he wasn’t ready to comment on the attempted coup and was waiting for the situation to evolve.
After the vote, the Central African nation’s Communications Minister, Rodrigue Mboumba Bissawou, announced a nightly curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., and said internet access was being restricted indefinitely to quell disinformation and calls for violence.
NetBlocks, an organization tracking internet access worldwide, said internet service saw a “partial restoration” in Gabon after the coup.