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Gabon Joins the Coup Club
The Bongo Dynasty has Beat its Last Drum
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In the early morning hours of Wednesday, August 30th in Greenwich Mean Time, the wire service Reuters ran two very different headlines about the small African nation of Gabon. One read, “Gabon President Ali Bongo wins third term after disputed election.” The next read, “Gabonese military officers announce they have seized power.” As it stands, the articles show as being 2 minutes apart, but unfortunately Reuters updates and does not provide an article history [which really makes one think about how they can manipulate history.] Regardless, the screencaps I took Tuesday night PST when I picked up on this tell quite the “story in two parts,” as we say on the internet. It was reportedly mere minutes after the nation’s electoral body announced Bongo’s victory that gunshots were heard in the capital and then a group of military men went on public television with an importance announcement- the end of the Republic.
Some stringer that Reuters probably had sleeping in Gabon’s capital of Libreville for 30 years was lucky he was awake when this came through. Just over a month before, on July, 28th I published an article titled, “The Last Domino Falls in the Sahel” about the coup in Niger. I wrote at the time,
“The world witnessed a now-familiar sight: a group of African military officers, this time calling themselves the “National Council for Safeguard of the Homeland” [CNSP], on state television announcing an end to civil government.”
And we indeed have yet again seen it, but this time they are calling themselves the “Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions” [CTRI]. This coup was also quite specific about which institutions they were getting rid of, saying, “All the institutions of the republic are dissolved” and specifying those to include, “The government, the Senate, the National Assembly and the Constitutional Court.” Though the outside powers are still calling it an “attempted coup,” it appears the 56 year reign of the kleptocratic, French-aligned Bongos, father then son, is over. Unfortunately for the Gabonese, for the time being the new leader is Republican Guard commander General Brice Clothaire Oligui Nguema, a cousin of Bongo, who has himself grown rich from the kleptocracy. Though the democratic facade being pulled back may work to separate the country from France, the reactive coup fans notwithstanding, it seems unlikely this all changes much for the Gabonese people.
Gabon is a small country on the west coast of Africa, though for administrative purposes, including currency, it is considered part of Central Africa. It borders Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and the Republic of Congo [often know as Congo Brazzaville.] Gabon received its independence from France in 1960, and like the great majority of Francafrique countries it had agreed to independence under terms dictated by France. It is a tropical country that is primarily rainforest and is famed for its wildlife, especially elephants, which tourists can see while sunning on beautiful beaches. It is a major exporter of oil and one of the world’s most important sources of manganese. Like most of Francafrique, France’s former African empire, the French have maintained enormous economic control over the country. Gabon has a small population of around 2.4 million, but it is rapidly growing with 35% of the population 14 or younger, though it is still among the lowest birth rates in sub-Saharan African. It has one of the highest GDP’s per capita in Africa due to being a low population petrostate, but there is enormous income inequality. As of 2019 43.5% of the population was below the country’s poverty line, which is an income of a mere $5.50 a day. There is persistently high unemployment, and beach resorts for wealthy tourists are commonly only a few blocks from residents living in extreme poverty.
Albert-Bernard Bongo came to power in Gabon in 1967 following the death of President Leon M’ba, under whom he served as Vice President. In a 1973 he converted from traditional animism, a small minority religion in Gabon, to Islam, a somewhat larger minority religion in the plurality Roman Catholic country, and changed his name to Omar. The move was widely seen as a cynical ploy to attract investment from Muslim countries, which makes sense as it was shortly before Gabon joined OPEC; his son Alain, who changed his name to Ali, was the only family member to convert along with him. Bongo, a deferential Francophile, became one of the world’s most notorious kleptocrats while maintaining a thin veneer of democracy that no one, foreign or domestic, who knew anything about Gabon believed in. Omar Bongo ruled Gabon for over 40 years, becoming the world’s longest lasting non-royal national leader after Fidel Castro’s retirement in 2008. He shaped the country in his image, naming his hometown and countless buildings after himself. The corruption was so severe that the rule by his family and their wealth is known as “The Bongo System” within the country. As of 2008, his son was the Defence Minister, his daughter was the Head of Cabinet, and his son-in-law was the Finance Minister. What’s more, a woman reported to be his one-time mistress, has been the head of the country’s Constitutional Court since 1991, overseeing every challenge to Bongo family rule; she is fully implicated in the family’s financial corruption.
Bongo stayed close to Paris by letting France maintain a military base in the country and giving the French Elf oil company control the country’s large petroleum reserves and thus much of the overall economy. He maintained power most of all through patronage and corruption, richly rewarding his friends and buying off his opponents. In 1990, following protests, multiparty elections were allowed, but with full control of the government and massive corrupt wealth, Bongo never let fair elections occur and his rule was never seriously challenged. He once went as far as to seek France’s support for turning the country into a hereditary monarchy, something which French President Jacques Chirac was said to find quite comical:
Multiple international investigations have shown how his wealth was spread around the world but it never mattered. It was reported that he had at least 183 cars, many of which were customized luxury vehicles, as well as at least 39 properties in France alone, and 66 bank accounts. His avarice clearly reached the point of madness, but at the same time, it was what he used to hold the country together, and Gabon is a rare sub-Saharan African country which never had a civil war or coup post-independence, until now. When Omar Bongo died in 2009, he was estimated to be one of the world’s richest men. His fortune was split between 53 heirs, including over 30 children, and regular lawsuits over the inheritance have repeatedly brought the extent of his ill-gotten gains to public light. Both the current President of France at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the former President, Jacques Chirac, attended the funeral to pay their solemn respects to France’s most extravagant client.
After a long period of holding important positions as the heir apparent, Omar’s son, Ali Bongo took power following his death, “winning” the 2009 election with 42% of the vote . Ali, a French educated Anglophile who prefers London to Paris, is a colorful character. He studied law at Paris’s Sorbonne [though it’s unclear if he graduated] and has a French wife with whom he has four children. In 2018, Bongo was awarded an Honorary Law Degree from Wuhan University, a place I had never heard of before 2020 but which seems to produce an incredible “frequency illusion” in the time since. He released an English language funk album in the late ‘70s that is surprisingly good for the son of an African dictator of a French client state. He would later use his music industry connections to get Michael Jackson to visit his country in the early ‘90s [it is unknown if any children were harmed in the making of that publicity stunt.]
As President of Gabon, Ali Bongo brought a degree of hope to the world as someone they could work with. He is said to have “distanced himself” from Paris his entire Presidency, but this is only because they have questioned the legitimacy of his elections despite tolerating his father rigging elections to stay in power for 40 years. Ali even brought Gabon into the Commonwealth countries- the organization of former British colonies- which is amusing for a few reasons, most of all that they state this as their criteria:
“The eligibility criteria for Commonwealth membership, amongst other things, state that an applicant country should demonstrate commitment to democracy and democratic processes, including free and fair elections and representative legislatures; the rule of law and independence of the judiciary; good governance, including a well-trained public service and transparent public accounts; and protection of human rights, freedom of expression, and equality of opportunity.”
As far as I can tell Gabon does not genuinely meet a single criterion, though it nominally meets at least a few. In reality, though he has sought good relations with the whole world, he has not seriously threatened France’s interest in the region at any time. He is also known for having accepted international money to protect Gabon’s rainforests and wildlife in what is called a “debt-for-nature” scheme, which seems to me to be almost a comic book example of how African elites accept “aid” money which keeps their own countries poor and underdeveloped. He won a disputed re-election in 2016, before changing the constitution in 2023 to allow him to continue despite term limits and to make his re-election requirements easier. It is not worth going into the [former] Constitution of Gabon, but suffice to say it has been changed frequently for the sole purpose of keeping the Bongos as head of state. In 2019 he suffered a stroke and was incapacitated for a time at a hospital in Morocco- the Moroccan royal family is a personal ally of the Bongo family. Fortunately for him, the above-mentioned President of the Constitutional Court is fully in on the racket, so they can do whatever they want, or could, at least.
Ali Bongo’s corruption was relatively less profligate than his father’s, but the entire state apparatus was still built on patronage from distributed oil money. It is difficult to find a reliable source on Ali’s net worth, as he at least tried to create an image of being less corrupt, but the website Prime Business listed him as the 9th wealthiest politician in Africa in a 2023 list, estimating his wealth at one billion dollars. Ali purports to have given a large amount of his inheritance to the state, but he has had decades in government to amass a corrupt fortune of his own. Bongo has tried to create the appearance of fighting corruption, including making multiple arrests for $100 million going missing from the state oil company. However, there are countless examples of corruption being used as a pretext to persecute political opponents or those who have otherwise fallen out of favor with the regime. Bongo’s former cabinet director, Brice Laccruche Alihanga, was among those arrested, and called it a “political witch hunt.” It is often impossible for an outsider to know who is fighting corruption and who is being persecuted on the false premise of corruption, with just some prominent examples being the dispute over Joe Biden getting the Ukrainian prosecutor fired and the prior imprisonment of current Brazil President Lula De Silva. In this specific instance, we can be sure that Bongo was never serious about cleaning up the Gabonese state, but it is possible he was upset that these men had stolen money without his approval. Regardless, it is clear that the Bongos never stopped looting the country. A video circulating on Twitter, which I cannot independently verify, purports to show a raid on a property associated with Bongo’s oldest son, Noureddin Bongo Valentin, following the coup and a truly incredible amount of cash was discovered:
It’s not clear what kind of currency this is, but even with the largest CFA Franc note, the 10,000, only being worth 16.53 USD at current exchange rates, this is a fortune by any standard, in a country were much of the population lives on around 1/3rd of one of those bills a day. [Also, I am going to give him a pass on the beeping smoke detector, on the generous assumption that this is an unoccupied stash house.]
Things in Gabon were continuing as they had been for as long as most people alive could remember- a thieving ruling class was living large, much of the population was in extreme poverty, France was profiting off of the country’s national resources, and no meaningful political opposition was allowed, when after the 2023 elections a group of military men said, “I don’t know why, but that’s it.” My suspicion is that him claiming a 64% victory was a step too far, and added insult to injury, whereas 51% would have been tolerable. Georgetown Professor Ken Opalo, who writes the Substack An Africanist Perspective put together some charts based on 2021 survey data and found that at the time he had a disapproval rating of of 83.41%, making him somewhat less popular than the US Congress. On top of this, over 65% of the country said they didn’t trust the electoral commission, which is surprisingly low in a country where one family rigged elections for 56 years.
In preparation for the election, Bongo’s regime took a variety of measures to maintain public order which served the obvious purpose of stealing the election. These measures included shutting down the internet, banning French media on the grounds that it was not “objective,” and imposing a curfew. There were also no international observers allowed for the first time. The process of vote counting was marred with delays, something which has a tendency of making people suspicious even if there are no other signs of fraud. According to the opposition, the counting was never finished at all, and it is sweetly optimistic of them to ask the new junta to finish counting on the hope that they will be declared winners and take power.
The coup itself was decidedly undramatic, as palace coups often are. We have this mental image of a coup where men and equipment are rapidly moving around a country with no one certain what will happen. In this instance, as with the coup in Niger, it seems that they primarily just seized the President and announced their takeover of the country. Bongo released an English language video with depressing energy stating he did not know what was going on and asking his friends to “scream” for help for him. This presents a very meme-able image:
It needs to be noted that not only does Bongo not have a French accent, he also has a very light African accent in English. This emphasizes an “outsider” problem he has faced his whole life with persistent rumors that he was adopted from Nigeria and frequent criticisms that he doesn’t know any local languages as he grew up in elite schools. One can assume he has spent very little time with the common Gabonese man in his entire life, his father having taken power when he was 8.
Later on in the day of the coup announcement, the leaders met to decide what they would do moving forward. General Brice Nguema gave an interview to Le Monde, a major French publication, where he did not signal the new regime would be hostile to France. Nguema himself was unanimously named the new leader. Nguema is a cousin of Bongo and has held prominent security positions in Gabon for decades. He has been the head of the Republican Guard, the top unit in Gabon’s military, since 2019. Nguema is also involved in the corruption, having bought 3 modest homes in Maryland for over $1 million total cash. It does at least seem that unlike the elder Bongo, who was maniacal in his avarice, Nguema has simply wisely planned for potential exile; these are homes where a man would live modestly in obscurity. He told reporters when asked about these purchases, “I think whether in France or in the United States, a private life is a private life that [should be] respected.” There is no reason to believe that Nguema will bring about any substantial changes to Gabon, though just looking at a new face is perhaps a relief for the Gabonese. Nguema initially said of Bongo, “He is a Gabonese head of state. He is retired, he enjoys all his rights. He is a normal Gabonese, like everyone else.” A funny thing to say about someone extra-judicially detained, but seemingly conciliatory. However, once they got together and released a statement, Bongo’s government was accused of, “high betrayal of state institutions, massive embezzlement of public funds (and) international financial embezzlement.” I don’t know what exactly would constitute the first one, but the second two are very obviously true. Nguema will be sworn in on Monday, and says he intends to target business corruption within the country.
The global reaction has largely been a joke, as everyone knows Bongo is a corrupt autocrat and that Gabon has not had democracy. The African Union called for a return to the “democratic constitutional order.” That would be the “democratic constitutional order” where one family rules for 56 years, the chief judge was the President’s dad’s lover, and the constitution is constantly changed to keep that same family in power. Nigeria’s Bola Tinubu, widely believed to have stolen his own election, cited concerns about “contagion of autocracy we are seeing spread across our continent.” Of the three major world powers, the US, Russia, and China, all three mostly just said they were “concerned.” Josep Borrell, the EU’s wildly incompetent chief diplomat, made a statement that could only be described as a "gaffe" where he said,
“The whole area, starting with Central African Republic, then Mali, then Burkina Faso, now Niger, maybe Gabon, it's in a very difficult situation and certainly the ministers...have to have a deep thought on what is going on there and how we can improve our policy in respect with these countries. This is a big issue for Europe.”
Compelling words. Besides that statement being meaningless, the problem is that the Central African Republic has not had a coup since 2003. He means Guinea, a country which has nothing in common with the CAR besides being in Francophone sub-Saharan Africa.
The hypocritical posturing of world leaders notwithstanding, the public of Gabon took to the streets in large numbers to celebrate the news of the coup. It seems likely most Gabonese had been waiting for anything to remove the Bongos from power their entire lives, even if the new regime is functionally a cadet branch of that dynasty. In this specific instance, it is hard to imagine how the military regime could do much worse, and in fact it is perhaps their best hope for a transition to something resembling real democracy. Many are tempted to think this is the same as the coups across the Sahel, but as outlined in Ken Opala’s article which I shared above, they have little in common besides that Macron’s unsteady and unsuccessful Africa policy has already been exposed and it’s clear the African Union is not in a position to do much in response either. One difference is that the Sahel countries are naturally poor, and their mineral wealth does not amount to a whole lot spread across their populations, whereas Gabon’s oil reserves are great enough to make its entire small population relatively well off if the money was put to better use than luxury villas in Paris and Washington DC. More importantly, in the Sahel it has primarily been radical Islamic terrorism which has undermined civil governments, something that is not a problem in majority-Christian Gabon. What undermined the civil government in Gabon was instead all of the government looting, failure to provide basic services, extreme inequality, and clearly stolen elections. Nguema has as much legitimacy as Bongo ever had, but the veneer of democracy is extremely important to Western powers, especially as Macron claims to be moving past Francafrique and that his country is no longer in the business of propping up dictators in Africa. Of course, France’s troops in Gabon are there to serve that exact purpose, albeit now unsuccessfully.
Many opponents of Western hegemony as well as “neo-Pan-Africanists” have developed a sort of unwise love affair with military governments, believing it the only way to shake off the yoke of imperialism. They fail to see that men who do coups generally only care about themselves. In this case, it was perhaps true that it was the only way to get rid of Bongo, but we can be sure that the “Bongo system” and French influence will remain. It is commonly said that perhaps our “Western democracy” doesn’t work in Africa. Though trite and reductionist, there is something to that, most of all because in many ways that system is failing across the West, where it arose organically and was not externally imposed by an alien culture. However, that is not the key issue. In King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild, an influential history of the brutal exploitation of the Belgian Congo, the author writes in his conclusion,
“History lies heavy on Africa…From the colonial era, the major legacy Europe left to Africa was not democracy as it is practiced today in countries like England, France, and Belgium; it was authoritarian rule and plunder.” 
The fact is that what has happened in Gabon over the last 56 years of Bongo rule is not a case of Gabon failing to adopt the form government brought to Africa by Europe: it is the form of government brought to Africa by Europe. We can at least hold out hope that Gabon has been set on a better course, and that the Western powers will not get too caught up in pretending that what Gabon had previously was “democracy.” Unfortunately, there is not any reason to believe this all will improve the life of the man on the street in Libreville.
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