The Gabonese military foiled an attempted coup on Monday morning as a small group of junior army officers seized national radio for a brief period. The plot was quickly bought to an end by the military killing two suspected plotters and detaining seven other suspects. The officers involved are relative unknowns within Gabon’s military hierarchy and broadcasted a message demanding President Ali Bongo to step down on the basis that he is no longer fit to rule. Bongo suffered a stroke in October last year and had been recovering in Marrakech ever since. His prolonged absence has caused rumors to develop regarding his fitness to rule, and these have been intensified by the rampant inequality experienced within Gabon. While relatively small, the coup has had a wide impact with a curfew being imposed in the capital city Libreville.
It is unclear who was supporting those who carried out the attempted coup and the BBC reported that they seemed ill-prepared. Despite this, the radio broadcast and strong government response have prompted widespread panic. Gabonese journalist Antoine Lawson said that tanks and soldiers were patrolling the streets and commented that, “The people are afraid. When the young soldiers asked everyone to come to the streets in support of the coup, nobody did, because they were in a panic.” Internet and communications have also been cut in Libreville leaving thousands unable to communicate and uncertain as to what is going on. Mehari Taddele Maru, a Kenya-based security consultant, told Al Jazeera the coup attempt showed growing frustration with the Bongo family, which has ruled the oil-producing country since 1967. President Ali Bongo succeeded his father Omar in 2009, and the small west African state has seen a sharp decline in oil revenue in recent years resulting in the majority of the two million population now living below the poverty line. The Bongo family has been allegedly profiting from the country’s natural resources while failing to invest enough funds to provide basic services for many. As long as the basic concerns of the people go unaddressed, discontent will only grow against their leader who many consider being a relative absentee.
The coup is the first sign that the Bongo clan is beginning to lose its long-held grip on power. This is worrying for the international community as President Bongo has shown in the past that he is prepared to resort to violence to maintain the status quo. President Bongo won the most recent election in 2016 very narrowly amidst claims of corruption and voter fraud. The discontent which mainly finds its roots in the dismal socio-economic conditions could trigger a security crisis if the government attempts to increase security and crackdown on civil liberties. The international community has condemned the coup attempt, and Al Jazeera reported that France, Gabon’s closest ally, has advised it’s 8900 citizens to avoid moving around Libreville. This demonstrates how serious France considers the risk of further violence and is a sign that intervention may be required. The next scheduled presidential elections are not due until 2023 which is an issue given President Bongo’s perceived incapacitation. On December 31 Bongo made his first television appearance since his stroke and noticeably slurred his speech and appeared unable to move his right arm. Given the strong leadership that Gabon needs is lacking at present, and Bongo is unwilling to step down the situation could quickly move to a breaking point. The international community needs to be a close eye on what is a developing situation here and be prepared to step in if needed as it appears increasingly clear that the dynastic rule of the Bongo family is becoming increasingly intolerable to the people of Gabon.
Meaningful regime change in Gabon seems unlikely to happen peacefully in the near future without some form of international assistance. Gabon has a relatively large military for its size, and most generals remain loyal to the Bongos. Investment in Gabon is necessary to help prevent the emergence of both a political crisis but also a humanitarian crisis. If this can occur and dialogue can be established between the Bongo’s and those who oppose them, Gabon can be governed peacefully and the people who are currently suffering can have their basic needs met.
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