This video grab shows the spokesperson for military speaking on state television as they announce that they had seized power in Libreville, Gabon Aug. 30, 2023. Army in Gabon said Wednesday they were overturning the results of a presidential election that was to extend the Bongo family's 55-year hold on power Image Credit: GABON 24 (via AP)

In a surprise move, high-ranking military officers have stormed the Gabonese national television, shaking the nation with the announcement that they have seized control.

Just days after the national election authority declared President Ali Bongo Ondimba victorious for a third term, the unexpected manoeuvre has plunged Gabon into uncertainty.

OPN Gabon map
There are some parallels between Niger and Gabon as French influence faces successive blows, with the latest coup in Gabon leading to questions about Francophone Africa's future Image Credit: Gulf News

Identifying themselves as representatives of key branches within the security forces, the army officers declared the nullification of the recent weekend’s election results.

Simultaneously, they placed the government on hold and effectively sealed the nation’s borders, casting an air of uncertainty over the resource-rich West African nation’s future.

Fact file: Gabon
Gabon, often referred to as Africa’s Eden due to its abundant forests and diverse wildlife, also holds a significant position as one of the continent’s prominent oil producers

The response from President Bongo or his government was not immediately forthcoming, leaving the nation and the world in suspense.

In swift turn of events, the sound of gunfire erupted in the streets of Gabon’s capital, Libreville, shortly following the broadcast’s conclusion.

Reports indicate that the gunshots originated from the vicinity of the presidential residence, further intensifying the intrigue enveloping the oil-rich nation.

President Bongo, 64, is now under house arrest, surrounded by his family and doctors. The military said that one of the leader’s sons was under arrest for “treason”. The army has put forward the head of the presidential guard as the leader of the transition.

Coup unleashed: Soldiers commandeer TV to announce takeover

In a dramatic move, a group of army officers have seized Gabon’s national television, demanding the world’s attention. They proclaimed the cancellation of the recent election results, throwing a wrench into President Bongo’s supposed re-election victory.

The electoral commission had barely finished counting the votes when the military brass appeared, declaring themselves the new power brokers and dismantling “all the institutions of the republic.”

President’s political future hangs by a thread

Gabon’s political landscape is shaken to its core as soldiers disrupt the post-election calm. President Ali Bongo, riding on a family legacy spanning over five decades, now faces an unprecedented challenge to his authority.

The dramatic coup attempt appears to be a response to claims of electoral fraud, as the opposition vehemently contests the legitimacy of Bongo’s win.

A military vehicle passes by people celebrating after military officers announced they had taken power, after the state election body announced President Ali Bongo had won a third termin, in Port Gentil, Gabon August 30, 2023 in this still image obtained from social media video. Gaetan M-Antchouwet/via REUTERS Image Credit: via REUTERS

Coup raises concerns of regional instability

As the coup ripples through Gabon, alarm bells rang across international borders. The uncertainty of this power struggle has brought Gabon’s stability into question, with reverberations felt far beyond the nation’s borders.

France’s Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne expressed deep concern, while the European Union’s foreign policy chief warned of potential regional chaos if the military coup were to gain traction.

French giant Eramet halts operations amid Gabon chaos

In the wake of the coup, French mining titan Eramet, a heavyweight in Gabon’s mining sector, has halted its operations. With a workforce of 8,000, Eramet’s sudden halt sends tremors through the nation’s oil-rich landscape, casting doubt on the country’s economic future.

History repeats itself: From fraud claims to coup attempts

The coup d’état in Gabon might be an astonishing development, but it follows a troubling pattern in the nation’s recent history.

Starting from contested election results in 2016, where allegations of fraud marred the process, to a failed coup attempt in 2019, Gabon’s political landscape has been a battleground of legitimacy. As the military seeks to wrest power from President Ali Bongo, the echoes of past controversies reverberate loudly.

Recent military takeovers in West and Central Africa
Burkina Faso, Guinea, Chad, Mali, Niger, Gabon
Residents applaud members of the security forces in the Plein Ciel district 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. Image Credit: AFP

Coup Unleashed: Gabon is another blow to French influence in Africa

As Gabon faces turmoil, a look into the legacy of French colonialism resurfacing in a coup

Sami Moubayed, Special to Gulf News

Things are not good for France in Africa. Exactly one month after the French-aligned president was overthrown in Niger, another coup has rocked the African continent, this time in Gabon where France’s ally, the Sorbonne-educated Ali Bongo, was toppled on Wednesday.

Bongo had inherited power from his father in 2009, who was also French-backed, and both father and son have been in control of the country for more than half a century.

A history of brutal colonialising

A former French protectorate, Gabon has always been highly strategic partner for Paris, thanks to its diamonds, timber, rubber, uranium, and more recently, oil and gas.

While more recent extractions have been made through formal agreements between the two countries, during the first half of the past century, they were taken for free — or as many would say ‘stolen’ with forced physical labour of the country’s impoverished inhabitants.

France gained control of the African country in 1885 and began to formally administer it from 1903 until 1959. Although formally independent since August 1960, Gabon remained one of France’s closest and most reliable African allies; a base for never-ending military, political, and economic investment.

Ever since Charles de Gaulle was in power, the French thought they could stay in Gabon forever. Niger’s coup put an end to that, followed by this morning’s putsch in Gabon.

French economic interests

One French giant that is alarmed by the news of Wednesday’s coup is the mining firm Eramet — a major employer in Gabon — which announced suspension of its operations.

Its sudden move implies that French interests are at risk, raising serious questions about the fate of other French giants working in oil, construction and energy, like Total, Bouygues, and Engie, along with the string of French banks that control Gabon’s financial system.

French President Emmanuel Macron is monitoring the situation closely, waiting to see whether the coup leaders will renege on relations with France, just like the ruling junta did in Niger after staging a coup last July, toppling President Mohammad Bazoum.

Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba applauds during the medal ceremony of the 16th edition of the Tropicale Amissa Bongo in Libreville on January 29, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Parallels with Niger

Last Friday, France’s ambassador to Niger Sylvain Itte was given 48-hours to leave the country, triggering a defiant response from Macron, who decided to keep him, against all odds.

Only he was singled out as persona non grata — not the American envoy, or the Russian one — showing just how fed up the people of Niger are with France.

Demonstrations broke out across the capital, demanding the ambassador’s departure along with all 1,500 French military personnel stationed in Niger, stationed as part of counter-terrorism operations against affiliates of Daesh.

Young people threatened to storm the embassy and France’s military base if Paris did not withdraw the ambassador immediately. Macron would take nothing of it, saying that without the help of France, Niger would “no longer exist.”

If the Gabon coup leaders were to take their cue from Niger, one might expect similar marching orders for the French ambassador to Gabon, along with revoking its military accord with France. But this is only the tip of the iceberg.

What will happen to the CFA Franc, which is pegged to the euro, and by mutual consent, must be kept in 50% of a nation’s foreign exchange reserves at the Banque de France?

What will happen to Gabon’s French nationals, and all of the French firms that employee thousands of locals — mostly at low wages, while keeping high salaries for Frenchmen?

And what will be the fate of other French ex-colonies in Africa, which might looking closely at the developments in Niger and Gabon?

Hands-off Africa

Last January in what now seems like a highly prophetic speech, Pope Franis demanded that foreign powers stop steeling Africa’s resources.

“Hands off Africa” he said, without naming a specific country although he seemed to be referring to France, the one former coloniser that still controls the lion’s share of African resources in countries from Gabon to Niger.

— Sami Moubayed is a historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.