Leading military figures in Gabon announced on Wednesday that they had placed President Ali Bongo Ondimba under house arrest in a bid to remove him from power after 14 years. The attempted coup comes days after Bongo was re-elected as president for the third time – a role he inherited from his father, former president Omar Bongo.
Ali Bongo’s victory in his third election campaign was announced early Wednesday morning by the Gabonese Election Centre amid fears of unrest in the central African country.
Before the results came in, opposition figures were already raising concernes over the transparency and legitimacy of the election – accusations which have plagued Bongo, 64, since he first ran for president in 2009.
The 2009 vote, from which Bongo emerged as the victorious candidate for the Gabonese Democratic Party, came two months after the death of his father, Omar Bongo, who had founded the party. Omar Bongo ruled Gabon for nearly 42 years and his son had served under him as defence minister.
Amid accusations the vote had been rigged, the country's economic capital Port-Gentil was rocked by deadly protests.
When Bongo was re-elected seven years later in 2016, violent protests broke out and angry crowds torched the country’s parliament. Around 20 people were killed in unrest that was eventually quashed by police.
Meanwhile, the second-time president, backed by Gabon’s courts, rejected reports from EU observers that there was a “clear anomaly” in the election results.
“Since 2016, there has been no progress in public freedoms in Gabon. Opponents can express themselves, but they know that there are limits,” journalist and specialist in African studies Antoine Glaser told FRANCE 24. “They have known for a long time that they can easily end up in prison, as happened during the last presidential election.”
Bongo’s presidency has, in many ways, followed his father’s template.
Omar Bongo took office in 1967 seven years after Gabon claimed independence from French colonial rule. During his presidency, Bongo senior was a champion of Françafrique, a system through which France maintained a sphere of influence in sub-Saharan Africa while giving veteran African leaders security guarantees.
Amid public pressure and social unrest, Bongo in 1990 introduced a multi-parti system in Gabon, yet still won three elections from 1993-2005, all of which were contested or followed by violence.
During his presidency, Bongo senior had the reputation of a kleptocrat – one of the richest men in the world, with a fortune stolen from Gabon's oil wealth.
In terms of per-capita GDP, Gabon is one of the richest countries in Africa and oil accounts for 60 percent of the country's revenues, but a third of the population still lives below the poverty line of $5.50 per day, according to the World Bank.
The late president allegedly pocketed millions in embezzled funds according to US and French investigations.
Accusations of corruption have passed from father to son. The Pandora Papers investigation in 2021 found that Ali Bongo has connections to secretive offshore entities in international tax havens.
French investigators in 2022 charged four of Bongo’s siblings with embezzlement and corruption, and believe both Omar and Ali Bongo knowingly benefited from a fraudulently acquired real estate empire worth at least €85 million.
Distance from France
As president, Bongo junior has also made his mark, particularly on the international stage.
Gabon is now recognised as an environmental leader due to successful efforts to safeguard its rainforests and rebuild wild elephant populations.
Ali Bongo’s presidency has also been marked by a distancing from France. When he first came to power in 2009, Bongo recalled Gabon’s ambassador to Paris after France’s prime minister appeared to question the legitimacy of his election.
"Ali Bongo has never stopped distancing himself from Paris,” said Glaser. “His favourite capital is London and he has very good relations with the Americans, with China and also with Muslim countries, including Morocco. In the post-colonial period, if there's one [African] country that has truly gone global, it's Gabon.”
But France continues to have a complicated relationship with its oil-rich former colony. Earlier this year, when French President Emmanuel Macron went on a four-nation African tour, Gabon was his first stop.
While Macron declared, “Our interest is first and foremost democracy,” as well as economic partnerships, his visit was viewed by many Gabonese people as giving a political boost to Bongo in the run-up to the August presidential elections.
Clinging to power
Gabon has now been ruled by the same family for more than 55 out of its 63 years since independence from France in 1960. Many inhabitants have only known life under the Bongo family.
“It’s a family that knows how to cling to power,” said Glaser.
Wednesday’s coup is the second that Ali Bongo has faced during his presidency.
During his second term, Bongo suffered a stroke in 2018 that sidelined him for 10 months, which he spent recuperating in Morocco.
While he was out of the country, Gabonese security forces foiled an attempted coup in January 2019 during which a small group of plotters took over the state radio and urged the people of Gabon to “rise up” against the Bongo family’s 50-year rule.
The plotters were captured by security forces hours later and two of the amateur group, who had little military support, were killed.
“For all its lack of preparedness, the attempted takeover carried a political message, one that highlights the deep distress of the people of Gabon,” researcher Amadou Ba, a member of the Africa Group at the Institute for European Prospective and Security (IPSE) in Paris told FRANCE 24.
The failed coup was followed by a doomed attempt by Bongo’s chief of staff, Brice Laccruche Alihanga, to oust the sick president from power. Laccruche Alihanga was sidelined to a ministry position in which he held no powers before being ousted from government altogether and eventually arrested in December 2019 on accusations of corruption.
Bongo emerged from his convalescence physically weakened. In videos his speech was slurred and the right side of his body appeared partially paralysed. But his grip on power, although shaken, remained intact.