Gen Brice Oligui Nguema: Who is Gabon's coup leader?

In an open top car, the leader of Gabon's military junta General Brice Oligui Nguema reviews his troops after being sworn in as interim president.
General Brice Oligui Nguema was inaugurated six days after his forces toppled the government.

After deposing Gabonese President Ali Bongo, Gen Brice Oligui Nguema was carried through the streets by his triumphant troops, who chanted "Oligui, président! Oligui, président!".

The 48-year-old general certainly appeared to be a man of the people as he was held aloft by his soldiers, but to many, he is an unexpected leader.

Just five years ago, he barely existed in Gabon's public consciousness. He had spent 10 years outside the country after being dismissed from the inner circle of the Bongo family, who until August had ruled Gabon for almost 56 years.

On Gen Nguema's return, he quietly rose to the army's highest position. Now, he is the interim head of state for the nation of over two million.

Gabon's new president was born in the south-eastern province of Haut-Ogooué. The area is a stronghold of the Bongo family and some even say that Gen Nguema is Ali Bongo's cousin.

Gen Nguema took after his father and pursued a career in the military. At a very young age, he joined Gabon's powerful Republican Guard unit, having trained at Morocco's prestigious Meknes Royal Military Academy in 1997.

The ambitious young officer quickly attracted the attention of the military top brass and became an assistant to then-president Omar Bongo, who was Ali Bongo's father.

It is said Gen Nguema was extremely close to Bongo senior - he served the autocrat until Omar Bongo's death in 2009.

"He's someone who wasn't expected [to lead Gabon] at this time," Edwige Sorgho-Depagne, an analyst of African politics who works for Amber Advisers, told BBC's Newsday programme.

"In the 2000s, he was far from the country for some time... he was almost forgotten."

When Ali Bongo took over from his father in 2009, Gen Nguema was dismissed from his job. He was appointed as a military attaché and spent around 10 years in Morocco and Senegal.

Local media portrays the general's long absence as an "exile", but a profile read out at his inauguration on Monday said that "his love for his country led him to take up a diplomatic career".

Gen Nguema is carried triumphally through the streets of the capital Libreville by his troops
Gen Nguema was carried triumphally through the streets of the capital Libreville by his troops

Regardless, the industrious military man reappeared on Gabon's political scene in 2018, when he replaced the president's step-brother as the Republican Guard's intelligence chief.

After just six months in the job, Gen Nguema was promoted to head of the Republican Guard. He initiated reforms to make the unit more effective in its fundamental mission: maintaining the regime.

A former close collaborator told French news agency AFP that the general was "a man of consensus, who never raises his voice, who listens to everyone and systematically seeks compromise".

The profile read out at the general's inauguration also gave hints of his character: He loves football and volleyball, speaks French and English, and is married with children.

Gen Nguema also wants to be known as honest - in 2019 he launched the "clean hands" operation, which set out to tackle alleged state-led embezzlement.

However, the general was himself accused of hoarding public money.

In a 2020 investigation, US anti-corruption organisation OCCRP alleged that Gen Nguema and the Bongo family had purchased expensive property in the United States with stashes of cash. The general was said to have spent $1m (£790,000) on three properties.

"I think whether in France or in the United States, a private life is a private life that [should be] respected," Gen Nguema said in response.

Gabonese people wave flags as they celebrate the military's takeover.
Gen Nguema's takeover was welcomed by many young people in Gabon

Barely eight months ago, Gabon's national news agency reported that Gen Nguema publicly reaffirmed his loyalty to Ali Bongo's presidency, which had stretched for 14 years.

But on 30 August, just hours after Ali Bongo was announced as the winner of a disputed presidential election, the military announced it was annulling the results and taking over.

With the president under house arrest, General Brice Clothaire Oligui Nguema was sworn in as Gabon's interim president on Monday.

The general told France's Le Monde newspaper that Gabonese people had had enough of Ali Bongo's rule, and that the president should not have run for a third term.

"Everyone talks about this but no-one takes responsibility," he said. "So the army decided to turn the page."

The UN, the African Union and France have condemned the coup - the eighth to take place in West and Central Africa since 2020.

But Gen Nguema seems to have won over large parts of the public. He has also succeeded in uniting the army, which is dividing along ethnic lines.

As a man who has been accused of corruption and has spent most his career in the Bongo's inner circle, he may not turn out to be the fresh start the Gabonese people hope he will be.

He will, however, be etched in the country's history books as the man that "turned the page".

Additional reporting by Alison Onyango