Gabon – Bongo Dynasty’s Demise Was Long Expected

Ali Bongo Ondimba was set to extend his presidential tenure into a third term when mutinous soldiers seized power in a coup. Analysts weren’t surprised, as sentiments to end the Bongo dynasty had been growing for years.

After 56 years at the helm of political affairs in Gabon, the end of the Bongo dynasty was very much expected. That was confirmed when soldiers seized power on Wednesday, some African analysts told DW.

The Bongo family first held the reins of power when Ali Bongo’s father, Omar, became president in 1967. Ali took control in 2009 after the death of Omar, who had ruled the oil-rich Central African nation for 41 years.

“The Gabonese population is hungry for change! That’s why most people, even if it’s a military coup, are relieved that 60 years of family regime and dynasty may finally come to an end,” Nathalie Mezo, a women’s rights activist from Gabon, told DW.

Bongo was set to tighten his grip on power beyond 14 years with a third term, after he was declared winner of last Saturday’s presidential election.

The electoral commission had announced Bongo’s win with 64.27% of the vote — defeating his main rival, Albert Ondo Ossa, who secured 30.77% of the vote. But the coup leaders canceled the results.

Bongo’s previous election victories in 2009 and 2016 had sparked violent protests. Jocksy Ondo Louemba, a Gabonese journalist living in exile, said the army did not want to use a heavy-handed approach to clamp down on protests like it had after previous elections.

‘Election itself was rigged’

There were hints that simmering discontent could spiral into violence after a last-minute change to the election rules required voters to select their presidential and parliamentary candidates from the same political party.

“This election was unfair and absurd because voters were forced to elect their president and their deputy [MPs] with the same ballot paper from the same party. If someone voted for a deputy [MP] from the PDG, the party of Ali Bongo, he was forced to vote for Bongo [in the presidential election] and vice versa,” Louemba told DW. “Even the election itself was rigged. It was a farce.”

After Wednesday’s coup, crowds of people poured into the streets and sang the national anthem to celebrate the end of the Bongo dynasty.

Mezo said the putsch was predictable and prepared long in advance.

“If we citizens already know that the result will definitely be in favor of the outgoing president, then the army knows all the more!” she said.

A recent Afrobarometer survey showed that 66% of Gabonese people surveyed backed military coups as a way of to rectifying a situation where elected leaders are deemed to be abusing power.

Leonard Mbulle-Nziege, an African political economist and risk analyst, said many people have always wanted to see the end of the Bongo dynasty.

“Gabon is what you would call an electoral authoritarian regime, whereby even though multiparty elections are carried out on a regular basis, the institutions of democracy, the rule of law have all been subverted by the rule of the Bongo family,” he told DW.

For Mbulle-Nziege, last weekend’s electoral process was when the “stranglehold over all of these facets of society over time came to a headway.”

What triggered the coup?

Oil accounts for 60% of Gabon’s revenues, making it one of the richest countries in Africa — but the World Bank said most of the population still lives below the poverty line of $5.50 (€5.07) per day.

Mbulle-Nziege said Bongo failed to tackle the key economic challenges confronting his people. They accused the president of getting rich on Gabon’s resource wealth while many of its people struggled to scrape by.

“Since taking power, he has been faced with domestic discontent,” he said. “There has also been less respect to the economic downturn that the country faced. They had two oil shocks and then there’s also been a lot of poverty. The country is an upper middle income country, but then there’s a 33% poverty rate and there’s a 20% unemployment rate.”

According to Mbulle-Nziege, the Gabonese public has become angry that, despite all of the country’s resource wealth, “these benefits haven’t accrued to the majority of the population.”

The Bongos have long been accused of corruption; in 2021, Ali Bongo was found to have connections to secretive offshore entities in international tax havens, as revealed in the Pandora Papers investigation.

“[The soldiers] are feeding off the grievances of the population which are unhappy with the governance, which are unhappy with the corruption, which are unhappy with the fact that the perceived benefits of democracy are not accruing to the rest of society,” said Mbulle-Nziege.

Why did the army turn against Ali Bongo?

Wednesday’s coup was the first time the army had firmly turned against the Bongo family since they took office in 1967, although it was the second uprising that Ali Bongo faced during his presidency.

The first was in 2019, after Bongo suffered a stroke that sidelined him for 10 months while he was recovering in Morocco.

Bongo had turned away from his father’s style of leadership which was largely clientelism, or exchanging special privileges or benefits for political support, journalist Louemba pointed out.

“[Ali Bongo] was very brittle, he was against dialogue. He thought he could achieve anything by force and police. But, you know, Napoleon said: you can do anything with bayonets, except to sit on them,” Louemba told DW.

He compared the situation today to the one before the 1964 coup when the then president, Leon Mba, wanted to introduce the Unity Party. When civilian political voices were actively gagged, the army intervened.

“For such a coup to take place at all, a certain cohesion was necessary. The majority of the troops had to share the same opinion, otherwise it would not have been possible, otherwise it would have failed like the coup attempt of Lieutenant Kelly Ondo [Onbiang] in January 2019,” Louemba said.

Earlier this week, Ali Bongo appeared in a video posted on social media saying: “I’m sending a message to all friends that we have all over the world to tell them to make noise for […] the people here who arrested me and my family.”

Samuel Ngoua Ngou, who used to be Ali Bongo’s deputy head of cabinet, said people — including the military — were simply fed up.

“I’m 624 kilometers from Libreville. But when I see the reactions around me, people are pretty happy — because they’re finally free!”

Edited by: Keith Walker

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