Gabon Coup FLASH Report

Undoing a Central African problem?


News that the military in Gabon has taken power while not very surprising, has added to the worrying trend of coup d'etats in Africa. What makes Gabon unique is the fact that it has not experienced coups since independence. In a region where coups have been common in the past, that was a rare case of political stability.

For those in the know, Gabon is one of the most naturally endowed countries with natural resources. Apart from a rich tropical forest, it has a significant deposit of hydrocarbons and other minerals. These aspects, among many others, make it a promising country economically.

With less than 3 million people, these resources and the revenue that comes from them are hypothetically enough to ensure the comfort of the people. Despite its relatively small population, the country has a significant proportion of inhabitants being immigrants from neighboring states and beyond.

Since independence, Gabon has maintained close ties with France as it opted to join the French community after independence. Its second President, Omar Bongo, was significantly close to Paris. Cote d'Ivoire, Cameroon and Gabon had become instrumental to French interests during the Cold War.

In recent decades, Gabon has invested in some infrastructure and social development. Per the Central African standards, it has done impressively well in development. Electricity expansion, road construction, education and health services are relatively better than many of the Central African states. Basic needs like portable water and food are also more accessible.

Family and Politics

These relative socio-economic successes notwithstanding, Gabon has been faced with the political problem of having one family exercising political hegemony over the country. Since independence in 1967, the Bongo family and their close associates have been in absolute control of the country and its vast resources. Except for a couple of months in 2009 when power was being transferred to the now "deposed" president of the country, the Bongo family has been the only family in the country.

While the situation is often interpreted as a sign of stability, it has created an entrenched elite that has unflinchingly dominated all aspects of Gabonese society. Investors and other interests are interested in the country often need some of these elites who have the years of the president or family member to "survive". This is not unusual in Africa. But in Gabon, it has been so since 1967. More troubling, a single family has been dominant.

After the senior, Omar Bongo had ruled the country since 1967, his son, the now deposed leader took power with the help of the elite who did not want any new face to rock the boat. In a matter of months, power was transferred in a disputed process. Afterward, the 2016 elections were also marred by intimidation by the governments and widespread irregularities. Regardless, the race was close. With the elite in support of the government, brutal force was used to suppress opposition protests. Ali Bongo had his way.

While the persecution and the marginalization of imposition elements was the order of the day, many had hoped that with the two-term limits as enshrined in the constitution, Gabon would see a new face at the helm of affairs after Ali Bongo's second term. That did not happen--until today.

In recent months, the president took steps against all expectations to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. While the opposition objected to such tweaks to the constitution, Bongo and his clique of elites saw it as a better alternative to having a new face on the ballot. After all, they could use force to stay in power--they did it in 2016. Eventually, Bongo had his way with the constitution. He was then qualified to run for a third term. As a form of compensation, he had reduced the term of office from seven to five.

After fourteen years in office, the elites were still insatiable.

Current Developments

Despite what looks like similar events across the continent about military takeovers, the current coup in Gabon has its uniqueness and category. In terms of category, it can be classified as the coup in the Republic of Guinea in 2021. It had to do with the long stay of leaders. The former Guinean leader, Alpha Conde, after exhausting his two terms, changed the constitution to run again. After he had "won" controversial elections that were dented with irregularities, he used the security forces to crush dissenters and protesters. Eventually, the military took power from him. That shares so many similarities with Gabon.

When compared with military takeovers in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, significant differences emerge. In the Sahel, coupists have blamed their actions on insecurity, with heightened anti-French sentiments. The civilian leaders who were deposed by this category of coup makers were not as entrenched as those in Guinea and Gabon. There was no constitution tweaking in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

Despite the similarities and differences the current coups have with the recent cold in West Africa, it appears the one fundamental thing is the fact that the soldiers are once again developing an appetite for politics. Also, this time round, the actions of the civilians seem to justify such takeovers.

The coup makers have announced that the election results that declared Ali Bongo as the victor are not credible. Consequently, they have annulled it and declared that they are currently in control of the country. When the handover is something no one can tell for now.

Who will be most likley to back the junta?

The current trend of coups in Africa has met heightened competition among global powers in Africa. In the Sahel, Russia appears to have an upper hand in Mali and Burkina Faso. While it has made overtures at Niger, the full outcome is yet to be seen as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has vehemently opposed the junta.

Considering Gabon, however, gives an interesting nuance. Before the Gabon coup, Ali Bongo had banned multiple French news agencies from reporting in the country. France had raised objections to this. The rhetoric of the government had become cold towards Paris in the process.

With the coup, there is the likelihood of the junta becoming closer to France as a way to shore up its legitimacy in the early stages of the putsch. While there is no verifiable news of France instigating the coup, it would not be surprising for experts to speculate in that direction. From recent French experience in the region, it could be preemptive in the case of Gabon.

This notwithstanding, Russian influence in Gabon has been significant since 2018. Disinformation and other means of changing public opinion to favor Moscow have been on the rise. If the soldiers decide to go with the trend in the Sahel, they could get in touch with Moscow. This, however, depends on who is in charge and how he views the future.

Another outcome could be that the junta will call for fresh elections or a recount of the declared results. With the soldiers in the region increasingly entrenching themselves in office and giving vague timelines about the power transfer, this could come as a surprise.

Regional Perspective and Potential Impact

As Gabon navigates through a politically turbulent period with its first military rulers since gaining independence, it is crucial to place this development in the broader context of Central Africa's geopolitical landscape. This region has a history of enduring rulerships that have used a variety of measures to consolidate power, similar to the tactics previously employed by Ali Bongo in Gabon.

For instance, Cameroon's Paul Biya has held the presidency since 1982, maintaining a grip on power through strategic alliances with elite classes. Despite advancing age, perceived senility, and extended periods spent abroad, he continues to enjoy the protection and support of influential elites within the country. This alliance has been key to his political survival and has implications for the country's stability and governance.

Equatorial Guinea presents another example, where President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the longest-serving leader in Africa, shows no signs of relinquishing control. By appointing his son as Vice President, he is ensuring a generational continuity of power. With abundant natural resources and a relatively smaller populace, the ruling elites wield significant control, thereby mitigating immediate threats to their governance.

Similarly, the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) has its share of long-term rulers who have manipulated constitutional frameworks to extend their reign. In this vein, President Denis Sassou Nguesso has been in power for multiple terms, maintaining control through various political maneuverings.

Given these examples, the recent coup in Gabon raises legitimate concerns about the potential for a "chain of coups" or other forms of political instability within the Central African region. While it is difficult to predict the specific ripple effects of Gabon's current situation, it serves as an important reminder of the interconnected nature of political events in Central Africa.

In conclusion, the recent developments in Gabon could serve as a catalyst for political change, not just within its borders but also in the wider region. Organizations with interests in Central Africa should be vigilant in monitoring these evolving circumstances for their potential impact on regional stability.

For real-time updates on the situation in Gabon and its ripple effects in Central Africa, please continue to monitor RileySENTINEL as a trusted source for up to date geopolitical risk analysis with relevant reporting.


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