In the early hours of Wednesday morning, 12 military officers appeared on Gabon’s national television to announce they had cancelled the results of the latest elections, dissolved all state institutions, and closed the country’s borders. This latest military coup against a puppet of French imperialism continues a process that has already seen seizures of power in a number of African countries, including Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.
The country’s main port in Libreville was halted, with authorities refusing to grant permission for vessels to leave. It wasn’t immediately clear if airlines were operating in the country. The officers introduced themselves as members of the “Committee for the Transition and the Restoration of Institutions” and declared that they represent all Gabonese security and defence forces.
The officers stated they were annulling the results of Saturday’s election (moments after they were announced), in which incumbent President Ali Bongo Ondimba was declared the winner with just under two thirds of the votes (according to the electoral commission), in an election the opposition argued was fraudulent. According to the results issued prior to the coup, Bongo’s main rival, Albert Ondo Ossa, won just 30.77 percent of the vote.
The mutinying soldiers are drawn from the gendarme, the republican guard and other elements of the security forces. The coup leaders say President Bongo’s son and close adviser, Noureddin Bongo Valentin, is under house arrest for “treason”. His chief of staff, Ian Ghislain Ngoulou; as well as his deputy, two other presidential advisers and the two top officials in the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) have also been arrested, a military leader said. They are accused of treason, embezzlement, corruption and falsifying the president’s signature, among other allegations.
Electoral and democratic farce
Although Gabon holds multiparty elections, Ali Bongo has maintained political dominance through a combination of patronage and repression, having succeeded his father when he died in 2009 after 42 years in power. In January 2018, the government promulgated a raft of constitutional amendments that further consolidated executive power and which excluded opposition proposals. In April 2023, parliament voted to revise the constitution again, reducing the presidential term of office from seven to five years, and reverting to a single ballot. This was another manoeuvre designed to facilitate Bongo’s re-election by a relative majority instead of the 50 percent plus one rule.
Both of Bongo’s previous wins were disputed as fraudulent by opponents. After the 2016 elections, the opposition claimed the vote had been rigged and demanded a recount – but this was rejected by the country’s constitutional court. In a completely scandalous move, which shows how blatantly corrupt the system is, the court partially changed the results of the bitterly-fought election, giving President Bongo 50.66 percent of the vote and his opponent, Jean Ping, 47.24 percent.
The main opposition candidate this year, Albert Ondo Ossa, had previously complained that many polling stations lacked ballot papers bearing his name, while the coalition he represents said the names of some of those who had withdrawn from the presidential race were still on the ballot sheet. Reporters Without Borders said foreign media had been banned from setting foot in the country to cover the vote.
Unlike Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, Gabon hasn’t been wracked by jihadi violence in the recent period, and has been seen as relatively stable. The immediate causes of the coup, aside from the fraudulent election, are related to the perilous economic and social situation, which has left the masses disillusioned and enraged. Nearly 40 percent of Gabonese between the age of 15-24 were out of work in 2020, according to the World Bank.
Gabon is a member of the OPEC oil cartel, with a production of some 181,000 barrels of crude a day, making it the eighth-largest producer of oil in sub-Saharan Africa. Gabon is classified as an upper-middle-income country, with a GDP per capita above its neighbours. However, social indicators lag behind the country’s overall wealth.
Despite Gabon’s economy benefiting from high oil prices in 2022, the rise in global energy prices has also led to high fiscal costs. This, in turn, affected social spending for the working class and poor. Gabon’s economic recovery reached 3.1 percent in 2022. The country’s trade balance and public finances benefited from high commodity prices. As a result, Gabon recorded its strongest budgetary surplus since 2014 in 2022.
However, the impact of the war in Ukraine and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on supply chains have pushed up food and energy prices. The poorer sections of Gabonese society were then hit hard by the sharp rise in inflation. Then, in an attempt to contain the rising cost of fuel subsidies, the government decided to ‘liberalise’ fuel prices for big industries, while maintaining prices for households. In effect, they put the crisis onto the shoulders of the workers and poor.
Government spending on fuel subsidies has risen enormously as a result, and today represents 0.7 percent of GDP. This is more than two thirds as much as is spent on health, and more than half of the public budget for education. This has put enormous strain on ordinary people, who are struggling just to get by.
In 2021, the unemployment rate stood at 21.8 percent. There is also a large gap between economic development in urban and rural populations. Moreover, city rents exploded as a result of the exodus from rural areas to cities. Rents are 155 percent higher than in South Africa, the continent’s most-developed economy. Four major cities house more than 85 percent of Gabon’s population. This alone represented a ticking time bomb.
33.4 percent of Gabon’s population live in poverty, despite the nation’s vast oil wealth and small population of only 2.4 million people. On the other hand, Bongo once imported fake snow to the Presidential Palace, so his family could enjoy a white Christmas.
A clear indicator of the gathering storm was the mass demonstrations and strike movements in 2019 by teachers, university students and education workers against new reforms to scholarships and university grants. Weeks of student protests hit the country. Massive street demonstrations against further counter-reforms spread to major cities surrounding the capital, leading to protest rallies and inspiring student protests in other cities.
This was a powerful movement, which shocked the regime. In response, the government withdrew the law. However, the anger was not quelled, but only became dormant. The regime as a whole was terrified that the fraudulent election and the prospect of yet another term of the unpopular Ali Bongo, who presided over the period of crisis, threatened to reignite the movement. The military officers thus decided to move decisively, and remove Bongo, in order to cut across a brewing social explosion.
After the coup, people were seen dancing and celebrating on the streets of the capital, Libreville. Some shouted, “liberated!” while waving the Gabon flag in the Nzeng Ayong district, alongside military vehicles. Given the eye-watering inequality in Gabon and hatred towards the corrupt ruling elite, with Bongo foremost amongst them, this reaction should come as no surprise. There is precious little sympathy for this deposed parasite and imperialist stooge among his countrymen.
Another blow to French imperialism
This latest coup is another blow against French imperialism in Africa. A deep-seated feeling of hatred for French imperialism is sweeping West and Central Africa at the present time. In Niger, which saw its own coup a few weeks ago, anti-French demonstrations have intensified after the French ambassador refused to leave the embassy following his expulsion by the military government.
The junta responded by cutting off the water and electricity supply to the embassy. Immediately, demonstrations broke out in support of the military government, with demonstrators carrying placards bearing anti-French slogans. They are currently threatening to storm the embassy and a military base where French soldiers have been stationed if the ambassador does not leave. This sentiment is widespread across Francophone Africa.
Bongo is a longstanding ally of French imperialism in Central Africa. At a time when anti-French sentiment was spreading in many former colonies, the French-educated Bongo met France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, in Paris in late June, and shared photos of them shaking hands. As one can imagine, this did little to help his popularity.
French government spokesman Olivier Veran has declared that Paris condemns the coup in Gabon and wants the election result to be respected. Earlier, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said France is following events in Gabon “with the greatest attention”. On Monday, President Emmanuel Macron denounced what he called an “epidemic” of coups in recent years in French-speaking Africa, from Mali and Burkina Faso to Guinea and most recently Niger.
What this ‘epidemic’ really reflects is widespread revolutionary rage against the increasingly unbearable situation created by the world crisis of capitalism. This is combined with and exacerbates a powerful anti-imperialist sentiment. But in the absence of a strong and organised working-class movement to offer political leadership, sections of the state forces are able to take power in the wake of the collapse in authority of these stooge-regimes of imperialism, in some instances resting upon and even giving expression to this mood.
In his annual Independence Day speech on 17 August, Bongo said: “While our continent has been shaken in recent weeks by violent crises, rest assured that I will never allow you and our country Gabon to be hostages to attempts at destabilisation. Never.” This is one pledge Bongo has manifestly failed to keep. His overthrow has put an end to his family’s 56-year hold on power in Gabon.
Gabon is one of the richest countries in Africa in terms of per capita GDP and was formerly an important oil-producing ally to the west in general, and France in particular. Following on from a wave of military takeovers in West African countries, this latest coup in the Central African region has deepened the whole process.
In fact, this has been the eighth coup in former French colonies in Africa in the past three years. Enormous forces are building in the depths of society in one country after another. These cracks at the top of the state are a reflection of these deeper processes. The forces of the African revolution are being prepared.