Exasperated by the predation of the Bongo clan, the population seems to largely support the authors of the putsch which has just ended 56 years of dynastic rule.
The coup d'état that occurred in Gabon on August 30 was widely described as part of the “epidemic of putsches” sweeping Africa for two years and which Emmanuel Macron had castigated during a speech given at the Élysée on August 28. Without being false, this shortcut arises from an overlooking analysis.
Certainly, commentators were quick to highlight the differences in political contexts between the attacks perpetrated in the Sahel and that of Gabon. But for the general public, the cause was understood: the Gabonese case was seen in a broader context, that of the decline of French influence in Africa. From then on, the specific history of Gabon, the behavior of the two main political actors, Ali Bongo and Brice Oligui Nguema, the long suffocation of the country's vital forces by power and the democratic aspirations which bubbled up under this cover remain poorly understood.
A country under asphyxiation
From 1960, the Gabonese politicians in power, heirs to the system of colonial domination, endowed the State with authoritarian and anti-democratic characteristics. The methods of Léon Mba, the first president, alienated a large part of the political class and voters, giving rise to a coup d'état in 1964. The French army then brings Mba back to power. Albert (Omar) Bongo, who succeeded Mba in 1967, continued on this momentum, imposing the single party in 1969 (Bloc, then Gabonese Democratic Party, PDG).
The rise of democratic oppositions forced him in 1990-1991 to accept the multiparty system. But supported by the windfall of oil revenues, the CEO gradually regained all of his prerogatives, reestablishing a de facto monoparty system in the 2000s. As all attempts to overthrow the regime through the streets or the ballot box fail, many politicians resign themselves to joining the CEO and allowing themselves to be co-opted by the ruling clan.
The CEO and the Bongo clan (in the political rather than family sense) control the electoral machine, the economic machine, the political machine and the power of the State. They also have the hand on media.
But the clan is not just a dynasty of autocrats. It has forged links with other forces in the country, particularly regional ones, renewing itself through marriage, alliance and co-optation. The survival of the regime also requires relegation. Each time one or one of its members acquires significant popularity and shows a desire to follow a destiny or a personal program (Jean Ping, Brice Laccruche Alihanga), he or she is politically defeated.
When Omar died in 2009, his son Ali took power in contested elections. He moves away from Omar's pattern of regional patronage, placing trusted people around him rather than ensuring a balance between the country's different forces. In doing so, he alienates the leaders of local power, and blocks political and economic redistribution networks.
The phenomenon amplifies after 2016 riots (following Ali's fraudulent re-election), and the president's stroke in 2018. The first lady Sylvia Bongo, her son Nourredine, and a group of young thirty-somethings, known as the Young Team, whose lack of experience is inversely proportional to the height of their ambitions, are in charge, to the detriment of the CEO's executives, whose discontent becomes audible from 2018. These are the men that the Gabonese crowd is delighted to see arrested the next day suddenly on August 30, on a viral video exposing the vaults full of banknotes at their HQ.
Political intimidation has a long history in Gabon. Since the 1960s, under a liberal and good-natured exterior, the regime has shown its capacity to strike. At the time of the coup, several potential opponents were languishing in prison without trial. Jean-Rémy Yama, union leader known for his criticism of power, had been imprisoned since February 2022. Étienne Francky Meba Ondo, vice-president of the opposition party React, had been arrested two days after the election.
Political asphyxiation is accompanied by economic decomposition, palpable everywhere, even among the super-rich, who are only there thanks to direct predations in the state coffers. Since 1998, GDP per capita has continuously decreased in constant value ($8 in 900, 1998 in 6). Local entrepreneurs, in a quasi-mafia system, can only prosper if the Bongo clan has its hands in the till.
The movements of goods and people are blocked by infrastructure that has never been adequately developed or maintained: paved roads represent only 20% of the network (i.e. 2 km out of 000) for a country as large as half the size of France. Regional airports, the pride of Gabon, have closed one after the other under Ali, like the Post Office services. Even in wealthy neighborhoods of Libreville, running water has disappeared since 10.
Finally, daily life has radically deteriorated since 2000. National statistics having disappeared since 2009, it is impossible to know what the real figures are. Only international counts are available, but they are based on approximations. According to these figures, therefore, unemployment is endemic (16% but more than 30% among young people), And 33% of Gabonese live below the poverty line.
Wages remain low, increasingly insufficient for survival. Set by law in 2010 at 150 XFA (000 euros), the monthly minimum wage has not changed for thirteen years. In addition, hiring companies go through intermediaries called “service providers”, who recruit and pay the workforce, pocketing a commission in the process. Among other examples, in Foberd, a company producing industrial and manufactured products, a day laborer receives only 229 XFA (5 euros) for 000 hours of daily work.
An institutional coup before the military coup
Focused on the coup d'état of August 30, commentators have often downplayed the electoral maneuvers which preceded it, and which Josep Borrell, the head of EU diplomacy, did not hesitate to describe as “institutional coup”.
The preparation of the presidential election of August 26, 2023 had in fact unleashed the repressive apparatus of the Bongo regime to an unprecedented extent.
The lockdown starts in spring 2023. To return to the presidency an Ali Bongo weakened by his stroke, with a disastrous record, the Young Team puts in place exceptional means. From April-May, the country was deafened by the CEO's thunderous campaign around Ali, assailed by the president's face in the media and on giant posters in cities.
On April 6, the National Assembly, composed of two-thirds of deputies from the PDG, urgently amended the Constitution. It harmonizes all five-year mandates and makes them renewable at will. The presidential election goes to a single round, opening the possibility that the winner will only be elected with a very small relative majority. The government refuses to announce the date of the elections, preventing the official campaign from taking place.
It was only on July 9 that the Gabonese finally learned that they would have to elect, on August 26, in a single vote, both the President of the Republic, the deputies, and the members of the departmental and municipal councils.
On August 4, Ali Bongo signed a decree on the single ballot (“unfair” according to the opposition) per party. As you can only put one ballot in the ballot box for the presidential and legislative elections, you must choose president and deputies on the ballot of a single party.
The approach to the election begins with a real hostage-taking of citizens. From August 23, the traditional date for the start of salary payments, Libreville residents gathered near the banks noticed that they were closed and the ATMs empty. On the 27th, under the pretext of ensuring internal security, the government declared a curfew, closed borders and banned foreign media. The Internet is cut, as well as telephone lines with the rest of the world. A military presence is deployed throughout the territory, in the nerve centers of Libreville, and near the residences of political figures. It is the head of the Republican Guard, General Brice Oligui Nguema, who is in charge of this operation.
However, on August 26, voters, galvanized by the unique opposition candidacy of Albert Ondo Ossa and by his performance on Gabonese television, flocked to the polls, encountering closed polling stations and missing ballots. The Gabonese Electoral Committee, chaired by a member of the PDG, will take four days to announce the results, which will be broadcast on August 30, at 3:30 a.m.: officially, Ali Bongo is elected with 64,27% of the votes against 30,77%. to Albert Ondo Ossa. Almost immediately afterwards, gunshots and bombings echoed in Libreville: the coup d'état by General Brice Oligui Nguema had begun.
Democratic and social aspirations
As Albert Ondo Ossa declared on television on August 19, “the Gabonese want to breathe.” The verb has become a leitmotif in Libreville since the coup d'état, finding here its first etymological meaning: to come back to life and experience a respite after having endured something painful, painful. This need for political oxygen, and the enormous call for air triggered by the coup, also come from the demands, criticisms and hopes long repressed by the Gabonese.
Because contrary to the images which describe their country as an amorphous society, crushed under the turpitudes of a dynasty often presented in a caricatured manner), the Gabonese are the heirs of a long democratic history that began under French colonization.
The opposition has always included strong, charismatic personalities, from Paul Mba Abessole to Jean Ping. Muzzled by various laws since 2016, the opposition press continues to publish some very popular titles, such as Echoes of the North. If the population is young, they take on board the democratic aspirations of their parents, infusing them with new political imaginations. This is what the clamors of Mapanes (the disadvantaged neighborhoods), who defy the police with cries of “Come and finish us!” » It is also the contemptuous murmur of the Gabonese in the face of elite monopolization: “Just take it, the country belongs to you!” »
In the Music courses, in university strikes, in rumors about ritual crimes what “the big guys” would organize to maintain power, resistance has never stopped. This is also what was expressed by the surprising mobilization of voters who, on August 26, went to the polls. Because at least since the crises of the 1990s, the Gabonese have always voted against the Bongo, valiantly, patiently, stubbornly. And just as resolutely, the clan and the party responded each time by subverting the electoral rite. On August 30, 2023, the machine to suffocate the Gabonese people stopped. The street shouts its relief and releases its words.
Because it is a huge breath of oxygen that General Brice Oligui Nguema brings to the Gabonese people. The junta immediately restores Internet and telephone communications, opens borders and free prisoners of conscience. The transitional government, as well as the new deputies and senators, includes many historical opposition activists. The public scene is radically transforming. While the curfew continues, the soldiers who remain in the street are the receptacle of the noisy recognition of passers-by, who can now express their contempt for the fallen regime.
Yet old habits persist. The omnipresence of Ali on the screens and on the airwaves was followed by that of “Messiah” Oligui, as he is called in Libreville. Previously, the general was little known to the Gabonese. Trained like Ali Bongo at the Royal Military Academy of Morocco, he had been Omar Bongo's camp chief. In 2009, diplomatic duties took him away from the country. He therefore seems to belong to this fringe of people familiar with the system marginalized for a time by Ali Bongo after his election. Recalled to Gabon in 2020, Oligui was named commander of the Republican Rank, the powerful elite corps charged with protecting the presidency. He is therefore not involved in the bloody repression of opponents after the 2016 elections.
Oligui promised elections within two years and a cleansing of the country's institutions. The project is enormous on all levels – institutional, social and economic – and it is not certain that there is enough will and new expertise in the country and in the diaspora. The political staff of the new government therefore includes executives from the fallen regime. It is moreover a policy of reconciliation that Oligui seems to follow, ready to reach out to the elites before – with the exception of Ali's inner circle (Nourredine and Sylvia were arrested, Ali himself having been released for health reasons) and some Young Team.
As for the program of the new strong man of the country, it is in gestation, publicly thought out, with the help of televised consultations, with the forces of the country, entrepreneurs, diplomats, clerics, opponents. Note, however, the discreet homophobic and xenophobic accents of the Constitutional charter promulgated on September 4, 2023. Article 25 defines marriage as the union of two people of different sexes, and articles 28 and 44 prohibit the sale of land to non-nationals, and reserve political functions for “original” Gabonese nationals. They respond in part to popular opinion, largely opposed to the decriminalization of homosexuality in 2020 by the Bongo regime, and the distrust towards the members of foreign origin of the ex-Young Team, now renamed " Foreign Legion ".
General Oligui's early reforms show a man accustomed to behaving like a soldier, who makes quick decisions and works in a climate of authority. Will he know, as he promised, establish real democracy in the country ?