Military officers in Gabon seized power from President Ali Bongo Ondimba in a stunning coup on Wednesday, threatening the family’s half-century rule over the central African nation.
Men in army uniform appeared on national television 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.
The ousted president is surrounded by his “family and doctors,” the spokesperson added.
Hours later, 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.”
The announcement came just minutes after President Ali Bongo Ondimba, also known as Ali Bongo, was 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.
“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.
In the broadcast, the military officer said the election results would be voided and the country’s borders would be shut.
“All the institutions of the republic are dissolved: in particular the government, the Senate, the National Assembly, the Constitutional Court, Economic and Social and Environmental Council, and the Elections Council of Gabon,” the officer said.
“We call on the population of Gabon, the communities of neighboring countries living in Gabon, as well as the Gabonese diaspora, 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, jubilating, and celebrating on the streets of its capital, according to videos shared on social media.
In one video obtained by Beadysworld TV ONLINE, people can be seen shouting “liberated!” and waving the Gabon flag in the Nzeng Ayong district of the capital, alongside military vehicles.
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.
There have been nine coups in the past three years in former French colonies – Mali Guinea, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Tunisia, 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.
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.”
“It’s an issue that will be put on the table and we will discuss it,” Borrell told reporters ahead of an EU ministerial meeting on defense held in Toledo, Spain.
“The whole area starting with Central African Republic, then Mali, then Burkina Faso, now Niger, maybe Gabon, it’s a very difficult situation,” Borrell said.
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 were arrested as a result.