Military officers in Gabon declare coup and place president under house arrest

Aug 31, 2023, 7:00 AM

Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York City ...

Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 21, 2022. Photo credit: Brendan McDermid/Reuters/File

(CNN) — Military officers in Gabon have declared they were seizing power from President Ali Bongo Ondimba in a stunning coup, threatening the family’s half-century rule over the central African nation.

Men in army uniform appeared on national television Wednesday to announce the president’s house arrest during the military takeover, prompting celebrations and reports of gunfire on the streets of the capital – but condemnation overseas.

“It is brought to the attention of the national and international community that Ali Bongo Ondimba is being kept under house arrest,” an unnamed junta spokesperson said on state TV on Wednesday morning, adding that the ousted president is surrounded by his “family and doctors.”

The junta later announced that General Brice Oligui Nguema would act as a transitional leader. Speaking on national television surrounded by fellow soldiers on Wednesday evening, a spokesman for the Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions (CTRI) said that Oligui had been “unanimously” designated as “president of the transition.”

The junta’s spokesperson said authorities will investigate charges against the president’s son, Nourredin Bongo Valentin, who was arrested alongside six other individuals for “high treason.”

The Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency aired a video of the president asking his “friends” to “make noise,” following his house arrest.

“My son is somewhere, my wife is another place,” he said.

“I am at the residence,” Bongo added, seated in what looks like a library. “Nothing is happening, I don’t know what’s going on.”

It was not immediately clear under what circumstances the film had been made.

Meanwhile, AFP showed video footage of soldiers in the capital Libreville celebrating in support of coup leader general Brice Oligui Nguema. He was seen on the shoulders of army personnel, who were shouting “president.”

Oligui told French newspaper Le Monde that military generals would meet on Wednesday to elect a leader for the transition of power, adding that he has not “yet” declared himself the new head of state in Gabon.

He said President Ali Bongo Ondimba, also known as Ali Bongo, has been “retired” and is enjoying “all his rights” as a “normal Gabonese” citizen. He refused to confirm if the president is under house arrest, following the announcement from the junta spokesperson. Ali Bongo, was earlier deemed the victor of a contested election.

The officers, claiming to represent “defense and security forces” in the country, made the announcement in a televised address on news channel Gabon24. It was viewed by CNN on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“On behalf of the Gabonese people and guarantor of the protection of institutions, CTRI [the Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions] has decided to defend peace by putting an end to the regime in place,” a military officer said on the broadcast.

CNN cannot independently confirm the video, and has yet to reach Gabon’ government for comment.

In the broadcast, the military officer said the election results would be voided and the country’s borders would be shut. The officer added that all institutions in the country had been shut down, calling on Gabonese people to “remain calm.”

Loud sounds of gunfire could be heard in the capital Libreville, a Reuters reporter said, following the television appearance.

People in Gabon were seen dancing and celebrating on the streets of its capital, according to videos shared with CNN and posted on social media.

In one video obtained by CNN, people can be seen shouting “liberated!” and waving the Gabon flag in the Nzeng Ayong district of the capital, alongside military vehicles. 

The chair of the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, Willy Nyamitwe, convened an emergency meeting with representatives from Burundi, Cameroon and Senegal, following the coup.

In a statement on Wednesday, the African Union said the president of its commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat condemned the deposition and called on the coup actors to “return to democratic constitutional order.”

Nigerian President Bola Tinubu is “watching developments in Gabon very closely,” according to his spokesman, and is speaking to other heads of state within the African Union to decide “on the next steps forward.”

Criticism started to come in from around the world. France condemned the “military coup d’etat that is underway in Gabon,” government spokesperson Olivier Veran told journalists Wednesday.

The US Embassy advised its citizens in the capital to shelter, while the French foreign ministry urged its citizens in Gabon to “avoid or limit” travel.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday also condemned the “ongoing coup attempt as a means to resolve the post-electoral crisis” in Gabon, according to his spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric.

Guterres called on “all actors involved to exercise restraint” and urged the army and security forces to “guarantee the physical integrity of Ondimba and his family.

There have been nine coups in the past three years in former French colonies – MaliGuineaBurkina FasoChadNigerTunisia and now Gabon – that have undermined democratic progress in recent years.

Bongo’s long rule

Earlier Wednesday, Gabon’s election body said Bongo had won the presidential election with 64.27% of the vote, Reuters reported, after a delay-plagued general election that the opposition denounced as fraudulent.

Bongo’s main challenger, Albert Ondo Ossa, came in second place with 30.77%, said the election body. Bongo’s team had rejected Ondo Ossa’s allegations of electoral irregularities.

Ali Bongo, 64, took over from his father, Omar Bongo, who died of cardiac arrest while receiving treatment for intestinal cancer in a Spanish clinic in 2009, following nearly 42 years in office.

The elder Bongo came into power in 1967, seven years after the country’s independence from France.

He ruled over the small nation with an iron fist, imposing a one-party system for years and only allowing multi-party rule in 1991, though his party retained its grip on government.

Ali Bongo began his political career in 1981, serving as foreign minister and congressman from 1989 to 1991, according to the Gabonese embassy website in the US. He was defense minister from 1999, before becoming president in 2009.

Contested election

In this week’s election Ali Bongo had 18 challengers, six of whom had backed Ondo Ossa, a former minister and university professor, in an effort to narrow the race. Many in the opposition were pushing for change in the oil-rich but poverty-stricken nation of 2.3 million.

Tensions were running high amid fears of unrest after Saturday’s vote, with international observers complaining of a lack of transparency.

Ahead of the election, the non-profit Reporters Without Borders condemned the Gabonese government for obstructing foreign press coverage of the event.

The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Wednesday that “if (the situation in Gabon) is confirmed (that) it’s another military coup,” it would “increase instability in the whole region.”

This is far from the first time Gabon has seen a power struggle or unrest over Bongo’s rule, which has frequently been disputed by critics.

In 2016, the parliament building was torched when violent street protests erupted against Bongo’s contested re-election for his second term. The government shut down internet access for several days at the time.

A coup attempt came in 2019, when a group of soldiers and military officers stormed the state radio and television headquarters, took staff hostage, and declared they had taken control of the nation.

They cited their dissatisfaction with Bongo as president, vowing to “restore democracy” in the country – before Gabonese defense and security forces moved in to end the takeover and rescue the hostages. Two soldiers were killed and eight military officers arrested as a result.

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Military officers in Gabon declare coup and place president under house arrest