Several Gabonese soldiers seized a radio station January 7th to call for a coup amid economic dissatisfaction and the absence of President Ali Bongo. The soldiers overpowered the security forces at the radio station before Lieutenant Ondo Obiang Kelly suggested the coup over live radio. Gabonese security forces came in to put an end to the radio call and killed two of the rogue soldiers and arrested seven others in the process. In the announcement, Lieutenant Kelly assured a national restoration council would be formed to ensure a democratic transition “for the Gabonese people.” The attempted coup comes after a New Year’s address from absent President Ali Bongo, in which he claims he will be returning to office soon but is seen struggling to speak or move. The announcement is also on the heels of years of lagging economic growth and oil revenue on which the country is largely dependent.
With only 2 percent economic growth in 2018 and a significant drop in oil exports since the re-election of Bongo in 2016 with Emmanuel Issoze-Ngondet, oil strikes and uprisings have become common in Gabon. In a country where the oil sector makes up 80 percent of exports, 45 percent of GDP, and 60 percent of fiscal revenue according to the World Bank, the call for the coup becomes less surprising given the decrease in oil sector activity. On the political side, discontent among opposition and accusations of fraud arose when Bongo only won the 2016 election by 6,000 votes, resulting in continued dissatisfaction with the government in office since 2016. Alexandre Barro Chambrier, leader of the opposition party says the election was fraudulent and represented a “denial of democracy and dignity for the Gabonese people” according to Le Point Afrique.
Despite the plight of the Gabonese people, the actions taken to call for a coup have been condemned by numerous international figures, including Moussa Faki Mahamat, head of the African Union Commission who rejected the coup as anti-constitutional. Among others to speak out on the coup are France and Turkey, who also condemn the extra-constitutional attempt at changing the elected government. Agnes von der Muhll, foreign ministry spokeswoman reported that stability in Gabon necessitates “strict adherence to the provisions of the constitution.”
The violent manner of the radio announcement and call for military overpowering of the elected government does not follow peaceful means of protest and encourages increased violence by disrespecting the guidelines of the constitution. The coup serves as a warning to political leaders of the level of dissatisfaction and the gravity of the political crisis in Gabon. President Bongo responded by replacing Prime Minister Issoze-Ngondet with Julien Nkoghe Bekale. Issoze-Ngondet has been blamed for much of the oil sector decline since his time in office. Bongo hopes the change in Prime Minister will satisfy the opposition after the attempted coup.
As an OPEC member greatly dependent on oil exports and with a history of accusations of nepotism and corruption in the government, Gabon is still working toward stability. The same family has been in the office of president since Omar Bongo (Ali Bongo’s father) became president in 1967 until his son took over in 2009 with a narrow victory in elections that have been greatly critiqued. Omar Bongo established connections between Gabonese autocrats and Gabonese companies during his 41 years in office, while a third of the population lives below the poverty line, despite great natural resources and potential. The plight of the Gabonese people for anti-corruption and officials working toward national economic growth rather than individual wealth is valid and should be considered by the Gabonese government. Measures to prevent the radio call for a coup from realizing into acts of violence will need to be taken by the Gabonese government.