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General Brice Oligui Nguema speaks as he is inaugurated as Gabon's interim President, in Libreville on September 4, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

In a dramatic turn of events in August 30, 2023, high-ranking military officers in Gabon took control of the country. This move comes after the country’s election authority declared President Ali Bongo Ondima as the winner of another term, a decision contested by the opposition.

The military officers appeared on national television and asserted that the Aug. 26 elections lacked transparency and credibility. They announced the dissolution of state institutions and the assumption of power.

General Brice Oligui Nguema, the coup leader and head of Presidential Guard, who happens to be a cousin to ousted President Bongo, has been sworn in as transitional president.

Bongo, an accomplished musician and a powerful climate advocate, who held power for 14 years, is under house arrest. His wife, son, and President of the Election Commission have also been arrested. People in Gabon’s capital Libreville have come out showing support for the change of regime.

The international community has expressed concerns with strong condemnation from France and the EU. However, the US and China have taken a more cautious approach. The African Union has meanwhile decided to suspend Gabon’s membership.

The surprise development in Gabon and the coup epidemic in that region dominated discussions in the EU Defense Ministers meeting held in Toledo. The coup in Gabon is the eighth such action in the West and Central Africa since 2020.

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Allegations of irregularities

Gabon, situated on the western coast of Africa, has long been regarded as a country with vast natural resources and immense potential. However, beneath the surface lies a complex web of political and economic challenges. Since gaining independence from France in 1960, the Bongo family has ruled for most parts.

Omar Bongo ruled for 42 years until his death in 2009, succeeded by his son Ali Bongo. Elections in Gabon have often been tainted by allegations of irregularities.

In Gabon, the military has played a significant role in politics and political transitions. In 1967, the country experienced a bloodless coup led by then-Lieutenant Colonel Omar Bongo, who later became President. Bongo’s rule saw a blending of military and political leadership.

When Omar Bongo passed away in 2009, his son Ali Bongo succeeded him in a contested election. The transition was also facilitated by the military’s influence in maintaining the family’s hold on power.

Gabon's President Ali Bongo
Ali Bongo Ondimba, the third president of Gabon

The French connection

The relationship between the military and political leadership in Gabon has been characterised by loyalty-based ties. Bongo’s regime relied on key military figures for support. The military-political relationship has not been without tensions and controversies.

In 2019, a group of military officers attempted a coup while President Ali Bongo was receiving medical treatment in Morocco. The coup attempt was swiftly suppressed, thanks to the support of a major section of the army and France. This time, although France supports Bongo; the army does not.

The relationship between Gabon and its former coloniser, France, involves a complex interplay of history, politics, and economics. 

French development assistance in Gabon, though aimed at supporting economic growth and social welfare, has also been met with some scepticism.

Gabon is rich with extensive natural resources, including oil, minerals, and timber. The oil sector dominates the economy, accounting for a significant portion of GDP and government revenue.

Despite the country being oil rich, Gabon’s almost 40 per cent of youth population is unemployed and nearly 45 per cent of population live below the poverty line.

Residents gesture and 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. In a pre-dawn address, a group of officers declared "all the institutions of the republic" had been dissolved, the election results cancelled and the borders closed. (Photo by AFP) Image Credit: AFP

A changed geopolitical landscape

A critical factor exacerbating Gabon’s economic hardships is the pervasive issue of corruption. Much of the nation’s vast oil wealth, it appears, has been squandered away.

The coup in Gabon, only a month after the coup in Niger and along with previous coups in Burkina Faso and Mali highlights a significant shift in the political landscape of the Sahel region and France’s diminishing influence in its former colonies.

The geopolitical landscape in Africa has also dramatically changed. Recent developments raise concerns among Western powers and necessitate a comprehensive re-evaluation of their approach in the region.

Given recent geopolitical changes, there is an urgent need to focus on soft power, mutual respect, dialogue, diplomacy, and better communication strategies in the region.