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Gabon coup: President calls for help as army takes power

Army officers appeared on national television in Gabon on Wednesday to say they were annulling the presidential election result and seizing power.

The attempted coup was taking place after President Ali Bongo, 64, was declared the winner of Saturday’s election with 64 per cent of the vote by the central African country’s election committee.

The opposition had argued the election was fraudulent. A lack of international observers, the suspension of some foreign broadcasts, and the authorities’ decision to cut internet service and impose a nighttime curfew nationwide after the poll has raised concerns about the transparency of the electoral process.

Within minutes of the result being announced on Wednesday, gunfire was heard in the centre of the capital, Libreville.

A dozen uniformed soldiers appeared on state television later in the morning and announced that they had seized power.

The soldiers intended to “dissolve all institutions of the republic,” said a spokesman for the group, whose members were drawn from the gendarme, the republican guard and other elements of the security forces. They placed Mr Bongo under house arrest.

Later, Mr Bongo pleaded for support, appearing in a video showing him sat in a chair with a bookshelf behind him. He said he was in his residence while his wife and son were in different places.

"I'm calling you to make noise, to make noise, to make noise really," he said. The video was shared with The Associated Press by BTP Advisers, a communications firm that helped the president with polling for this election.

Mr Bongo’s overthrow would end his family’s 53-year hold on power in Gabon.

The coup attempt came about one month after mutinous soldiers in Niger seized power from the democratically elected government, and is the latest in a series of coups that have challenged governments with ties to France, the region’s former colonizer.

Unlike Niger and two other West African countries run by military juntas, Gabon hasn’t been wracked by jihadi violence and had been seen as relatively stable.

In his annual Independence Day speech August 17, Mr 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 destabilization. Never.”

President of Gabon Ali Bongo (AP)
President of Gabon Ali Bongo (AP)

Gabon is a member of the Opec oil cartel, with a production of some 181,000 barrels of crude a day, but its more than two million people face high unemployment and rising prices. Nearly 40% of Gabonese people aged 15 to 24 were out of work in 2020, according to the World Bank.

Several French companies said they were suspending operations and moving to ensure the safety of their staff, with one airport source saying flights had been cancelled on Wednesday. The private intelligence firm Ambrey said all operations at the country's main port in Libreville had been halted, with authorities refusing to grant permission for vessels to leave.

A second statement by the coup leaders, who came from the gendarme, the republican guard and other elements of the security forces, said the president was under house arrest in his residence, surrounded by family and doctors.

People around him have been arrested for "high betrayal of state institutions, massive embezzlement of public funds (and) international financial embezzlement" said the military, among other charges.

Several members of the Bongo family are under investigation in France, and some have been given preliminary charges of embezzlement, money laundering and other forms of corruption, according to French media reports.

At a time when anti-France sentiment is spreading in many former colonies, the French-educated Bongo met President Emmanuel Macron in Paris in late June and shared photos of them shaking hands.

The coup’s leaders vowed to respect “Gabon’s commitments to the national and international community.”

Bongo was seeking a third term in elections this weekend. He served two terms since coming to power in 2009 after the death of his father, Omar Bongo, who ruled the country for 41 years. Another group of mutinous soldiers attempted a coup in January 2019, while Mr Bongo was in Morocco recovering from a stroke, but they were quickly overpowered.

In the election, Mr Bongo faced an opposition coalition led by economics professor and former education minister Albert Ondo Ossa, whose surprise nomination came a week before the vote.

There were concerns about post-election violence, due to deep-seated grievances among the population of some 2.5 million. Nearly 40% of Gabonese ages 15-24 were out of work in 2020, according to the World Bank.

After last week’s vote, the Central African nation’s Communications Minister, Rodrigue Mboumba Bissawou, announced a nightly curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., and said internet access was being restricted indefinitely to quell disinformation and calls for violence.

Every vote held in Gabon since the country’s return to a multi-party system in 1990 has ended in violence. Clashes between government forces and protesters following the 2016 election killed four people, according to official figures. The opposition said the death toll was far higher.

Fearing violence, many people in the capital went to visit family in other parts of the country before the election or left Gabon altogether. Others stockpiled food or bolstered security in their homes.