The attempted coup in Gabon is a reminder to the Bongo family—who have ruled for decades—that their reign is fragile, and will need serious reforms to survive.

Straddling the equator along Africa’s Atlantic coast, Gabon is an oil-rich state that rarely makes headlines in the global media. This former French colony and OPEC member frequently referred to as “Central Africa’s little emirate”, maintains a low profile internationally largely due to its relative stability compared to many other countries on the continent. 

With only three presidents who have been in power since 1960, the Bongo family, one of Central Africa’s wealthiest, has dominated Gabon’s political arena for decades, earning a reputation for harshly oppressing dissenters.

Perceived political stability aside, the country has scores of severe problems from low life expectancy (62 years) and high youth employment (35 percent) to a high poverty rate.

Ali Bongo Ondimba has been Gabon’s president since 2009 when he replaced his father, Omar Bongo, who had ruled the African state for 42 years. A common grievance among the Gabonese during Omar’s presidency was that the government squandered the country’s oil riches while neglecting the population’s vital needs.

The current president has sought to distance himself from his father and has taken some credit for making progress regarding Gabon’s economic diversification away from oil. Anti-Government activism of recent years, partially driven by the fact that one in three Gabonese still lives in poverty, has underscored the president’s limited success on this front. 

In recent years, the sharp drop in oil output and prices have put Gabon into a major financial squeeze, which has contributed to growing discontent across the country.

Against the backdrop of such economic and political challenges, doubt surrounding President Bongo’s health has built up in recent months. In October, the president suffered a stroke in Saudi Arabia. Such speculation that the president is sick did not decrease after his New Year’s speech made from Morocco (where he has been since November), in which Bongo sought to assure Gabon’s citizens that he is well.
On January 7, a failed military coup plot shook the Gabonese capital, Libreville. The military coup plotters—led by Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang, who identified himself as deputy commander of the Republican Guard and president of the Patriotic Youth Movement of the Gabonese Defense and Security Forces—declared the end of President Bongo’s rule via Gabonese National Radio, which the putschists briefly seized.

The coup plotters' statement justifying their takeover cited the president’s health and pointed to the failure of the “high military hierarchy” to advance “the best interest of the nation”. Ondo Obiang stated that the purpose of the coup, called “Operation Dignity”, was also to defend “the integrity of the national territory and national cohesion” and that Gabon was to be ruled by “a national council of restoration”. He referred to the deadly violence that plagued Gabon on August 31, 2016, when turmoil broke out in response to Bongo’s narrow victory in a controversial election which secured him another seven-year term. Ondo Obiang claimed that the coup plot targeted those who killed “our young compatriots” amid that episode nearly two-and-a-half years ago.

Within hours, however, Gabonese officials declared that four of the five coup plotters had been detained (with the fifth one caught later), two of the commandos behind the plot were killed, and that the legitimate government had taken full control of the country. The coup plot strongly implied that there is a division within the Republican Guard, which strictly serves Bongo, given that the chaos on January 7, involving gunshots throughout the capital, could have only resulted from a higher number of army mutineers beyond the five arrested.

Following this coup attempt, which was the first that Gabon had experienced since the 1960s, the country’s future appears uncertain. If Bongo remains absent in Morocco, there are grave risks of further unrest plaguing Gabon. That Gabonese officials closed their country’s border with Cameroon (a border which Gabon relies heavily upon for food imports) due to security considerations underscores the severity of concerns regarding instability following this coup plot.

In a quest to sustain the status quo, Gabonese officials will likely grow increasingly reliant on French and American military forces in the country for protection (France has a large base in Libreville, and President Donald Trump recently deployed US troops to Gabon in response to recent developments in the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

Considering how Paris and Washington both criticised Bongo’s 2016 re-election victory because the electoral process was marred with irregularities, the president’s ability to turn to Gabon’s key Western allies to prop him up is questionable.

Ultimately, to ensure that stability and calm can persevere in Gabon, major reforms will be necessary. Such reforms must be internal and not linked to any foreign power.

The ruling party’s monopoly on Gabon’s executive branch and the opposition’s insignificant presence in the national legislature have left observers concluding that citizens lack the means to transfer power to the opposition. The extent to which the Bongo family has accumulated massive amounts of wealth and seized tight control of the Gabonese economy have enabled it to establish political patronage networks that have kept the leadership in power along with security forces known for instilling fear into the hearts of dissidents.

Unquestionably, maintaining the status quo in Gabon, especially with the president out of the country, is untenable and drastic change is required to thwart large scale unrest. The question is what kind of reforms the government in Libreville will implement (if any at all) and whether they can placate the demands of Gabonese citizens who believe that the Bongo dynasty’s time to relinquish power was years ago.

Bongo’s decision on January 12 to name a new prime minister, Julien Nkoghe Bekale, seems to be a move aimed at shoring up support for his continued presidency. Although it is unclear how much more strength the Gabonese government can acquire while Bongo remains on his secretive medical leave.

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