Ali may be gone but the Bongo system survives in Gabon
Citizens of Gabon, the small Central African country and former bastion of French colonialism in the Congo Basin, broke out in spontaneous celebration at the news of the ouster of President Ali Bongo Ondimba on August 30, 2023. This is the 22nd coup attempt in Africa since 2013 and the 11th successful coup across eight countries since Zimbabwe’s soldiers sacked President Robert Mugabe in 2017.
This is also the third coup attempt in Gabon’s history and the first to succeed. The coup began on the fourth day of a nationwide curfew accompanied by a shutdown of the airspace, borders, and the internet and shortly after Gabon’s electoral commission announced under cover of darkness that President Bongo had won another seven-year term in elections in which he allowed no observers.
Rather than celebrate Bongo’s supposed election victory or resist his overthrow, the citizens broke out in revelry over his ouster. The only explanation was that Bongo lost the election by a significant margin but rather than respect the will of the people he chose to toy with it and manipulate the results. After 56 years of running the country like a private estate, he was not short of willing enablers.
Nearly 59 years before this latest coup, on August 17, 1964, a group of Gabonese and French soldiers led a coup that momentarily toppled Gabon’s founding president, Léon M’ba, replacing him with his former foreign minister and supreme court president, Jean-Hillaire Aubame. The new regime lasted a mere three days before France assisted in restoring President M’ba to office.
Shortly after surviving the coup, it became evident that President M’ba was quite unwell with what was later diagnosed to be terminal cancer. While hospitalised in Paris in November 1966, the president issued a decree designating 30-year-old Albert-Bernard Bongo as his vice-president, replacing Paul-Marie Yembit in that role. The month after President M’ba died at the end of November 1967, Bongo — who took the name Omar after his conversion to Islam — was installed as president, ruling until his death in June 2009.
Omar Bongo’s son, Ali Bongo, took over from his father in 2009 for a full term of seven years, but Gabon had always struggled to fall in love with him. Claims that he was a displaced child of the Nigerian civil war adopted by Omar Bongo had a significant following among many segments of Gabon when people treasured their relationship with metropolitan France. Upon taking power in 2009, his court marginalised his elder sister, Pascaline, who had mastered the networks of power in the country as her father’s long-standing chief of staff during a period when Ali was busy enjoying the life of a playboy.
Pascaline was married to Jean Ping, the son of a Chinese entrepreneur and a Gabonese mother who had wormed his way into Omar Bongo’s court. The day after Gabon’s presidential election of August 27, 2016, Mr Ping, who had become the opposition candidate, claimed victory, calling on his opponent, Ali Bongo, to congratulate him. Bongo’s response was an African proverb: “You must not sell the skin of the bear before you’ve killed him.”
Ping had served Bongo’s father, Omar, in various ministerial capacities before becoming Gabon’s longest-serving foreign minister in 1999. In 2008, Africa’s leaders installed him as the Chairperson of the Commission of the African Union in Addis Ababa. In that capacity, Ping had responsibility for implementing the continent’s standards concerning elections and governance. At the end of his tenure in Addis Ababa, Mr Ping returned home to Gabon, emerging ultimately in 2016 at the head of a united opposition front to wrest power from the Bongos.
On August 31, 2016, Gabon’s electoral commission awarded the election to Ali Bongo, giving him a margin of 5,594 votes over Jean Ping, who won in six of the country’s nine provinces as well as the overseas votes. Bongo’s winning margin came from his native Haut-Ogooué region, which recorded an impossible 99.93% turnout, 95.46% of which was allocated to him. While the European Union questioned the deep flaws in the election, the African Union ignored those, directing its attention instead to the violence that followed the declaration of results in which some persons were killed and Gabon’s national assembly burnt.
Mr Ping reluctantly heeded the appeal of the African Union to take the matter to the constitutional court, which curiously issued its decision around midnight on September 23, 2016, affirming Bongo’s victory. Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo, who headed the court, owed her appointment to her role as a “long-time mistress of Omar Bongo”, Ali’s late dad and predecessor in the presidency. Everything was in the family. The Bongo system was not a democracy.
Ali Bongo used the crisis of post-election violence in 2016 to consolidate power with generous assistance from Gabon’s neighbours. But while visiting Saudi Arabia in October 2018, he was hospitalised for a prolonged period. It later emerged that he had suffered a stroke, surviving with significantly diminished cognitive and motor capabilities. The Ali Bongo who survived the stroke would have been unfit for work in any other sphere of life. But what politics cannot do does not exist. So, despite much-diminished capabilities, Bongo clung on to the presidency.
While he was recuperating in Morocco, soldiers back in Gabon unsuccessfully attempted to unseat him at the beginning of January 2019. In surviving the 2019 coup attempt, however, the Bongo dynasty also arguably used up its spare political lives.
News of the ouster of the Bongo clan sent Gabon’s citizens into wild celebrations, but a disoriented Ali Bongo, supposedly under arrest, managed to cut a video clip asking his supporters to “make noise.” Brice Oligui Nguema, the recently promoted brigadier-general, who has been named as the head of Gabon’s military-led transition, is a former aide-de-camp to Omar Bongo, who returned in 2019 as head of the presidential guards. He is also a cousin to Ali Bongo.
The focus on what appears to be a contagion theory of coups in Africa misses the clear dimensions in which Gabon differs from other recent coups on the continent. First, there was no democracy left in Gabon to overthrow. What was overthrown — if any — was the head of a family business. The family’s business model is not endangered. Thus, despite the appearance of a coup in Gabon, political power remains in the Bongo Clan.
Second, General Oligui Nguema is not some anti-colonial or anti-French ideologue. On the contrary, he is a regime insider who has been named in credible investigations of corruption and can be trusted to protect the family.
Third, this coup clearly prevents the opposition from taking political power, which they won in the recent election. Gabon’s long-term stability may depend on persuading the Bongo clan to retire itself voluntarily.
By the end of the week, an extraordinary summit of heads of state of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) rising from a meeting in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, had dutifully issued a customary condemnation of the Gabon coup accompanied by a call on the transitional rulers to respect the physical safety of Ali Bongo and ensure a rapid return to constitutional order, although it is unclear what that means in Gabon. Shamefully, these same rulers had all been eloquently silent in the worst excesses of over half a century of the Bongo system.
In 2016, Ali Bongo warned that you must not sell the skin of the bear before you have killed it but stopped short of offering any advice as to how to verify that the bear has been truly killed. In Gabon, it may be a few more weeks before we fully find out.
A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at email@example.com
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