Gabon’s Palace Coup
How the extended Bongo family ousted a president but maintained its control of the country.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Morocco is slow to accept aid offers after devastating earthquake, a deadly drone strike in Sudan’s capital, Ivory Coast seeks to renegotiate price of ethical chocolate with the EU, and more.
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A Coup for the Status Quo
In less than two weeks, Gen. Brice Oligui Nguema instigated a coup, inaugurated himself as Gabon’s transitional president, established a new parliament, and freed political prisoners.
The day after carrying out a coup, Nguema reportedly set time aside to meet with the French ambassador to Gabon, Alexis Lamek, and promised he would strengthen relations with Paris. Five analysts told me that the speed of events tellingly reveals that the old establishment is still in charge.
Political observers are calling it a “palace coup” since Nguema is a distant cousin of deposed President Ali Bongo Ondimba and spent his career within the Bongo inner circle, serving as a military aide to Bongo’s father, Omar. François Conradie, a political analyst at Oxford Economics Africa, believes that the extended Bongo family—which has ruled the central African nation for 55 years—expected major public unrest and subsequent international pressure over a clearly rigged election. Instead of rubber-stamping the result, the family appears to have decided to remove Bongo from power and continue with a system that still benefits them.
Gabon is Africa’s third-richest nation per capita, but more than 30 percent of its citizens are poor due to oil graft. The coup was “a preemptive measure” said Ovigwe Eguegu, a policy analyst at the African-led think tank Development Reimagined. “It is really the elite class competing against themselves.”
Albert Ondo Ossa, the candidate for the Alternance 2023 opposition platform who many suspect actually won the election, has accused Bongo’s sister Pascaline of being behind the coup. “It’s a palace revolution, so there’s no military coup,” Ossa said in an interview with French media outlet TV5 Monde. Malika Bongo Pereira, Bongo’s daughter, posted a congratulatory message to the new military leader on Facebook.
Bongo has been freed from house arrest and can seek medical treatment abroad if he wishes, a junta spokesperson said. There are indications that he is expected to go into exile. His eldest son, Noureddin, remains under house arrest. “It looks like Noureddin is going to end up in court, and he will then be the scapegoat for everything that went wrong,” Conradie told Foreign Policy.
Gabon’s coup is starkly different from Niger’s and others in the Sahel. The relationship between France and Gabon will likely remain unchanged, analysts told me. While anti-French sentiment exists among the Gabonese public, there’s no suggestion that Nguema will start rewriting French resource contracts or fomenting public protests against France as military governments in the Sahel have. “This isn’t like Niger or Burkina Faso, where the relationships with France and all the agreements with France are in question,” Conradie said.
In contrast, Bongo’s regime had started to move away from France. Bongo met with King Charles last October, after Gabon joined the commonwealth. He promised Beijing a naval base in the country, an offer which is now effectively suspended.
“If there was anybody that was going to tilt away from France, Ondo Ossa would have been the guy to do it,” Eguegu said.
Much of Nguema’s new parliament consists of former members of the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (known as the PDG in French) who at one point fell out with Bongo. Crucially, it contains none of Gabon’s main opposition party figures.
Nguema has appointed economist Raymond Ndong Sima as Gabon’s new prime minister; he served as prime minister for the deposed Bongo from 2012 to 2014 before running against him in the 2016 and 2023 presidential campaigns.
“Appointing him burnishes his credentials as someone who is reaching out to the anti-Ali Bongo opposition, but at the same time, as we thought was going to happen, he is going to keep most of the PDG machine there,” Conradie said.
Jean-Francois Ndongou is speaker of the transitional National Assembly. Ndongou held numerous ministerial posts under the Bongo family’s rule. Meanwhile, the new Senate will be led by Paulette Missambo, a popular Bongo opponent and head of the National Union party. Missambo was a former minister in the government of Ali Bongo’s father, Omar.
The junta has indicated a possible two-year transitional government. Gabonese citizens will continue to hope for a free and fair election in which the old guard truly hands over power—but this may not happen, according to analysts. Like Nguema’s cabinet, that election ballot will likely be populated with PDG members. “These guys have completely established themselves,” Eguegu concluded. It potentially sets the scene for a repeat of the violent protests that have followed past elections in Gabon.
What We’re Watching
Niger coup. The military junta leading Niger accused France of having dispatched troops and military equipment to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) member states Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Benin as “part of preparations for an aggression against Niger.” Junta representative Amadou Abdramane, made the claim on state television Saturday night. The United States has begun relocating “as a precaution” its 1,100 soldiers in Niamey to the central city of Agadez. Analysts suggest this is to create distance between U.S. and French troops as France’s image in Francophone West Africa becomes increasingly toxic.
France’s foreign ministry said Tuesday that a French advisor for French expatriates had been arrested by Niger’s junta. French troops could move to Chad, where Paris has allies, but there is strong anti-French sentiment in Chad as well because the presidency of military leader Mahamat Déby is considered illegitimate. There are signs that the Chadian government is worried about the possibility of exposing itself to a coup if the French military presence grows.
Eguegu believes ECOWAS will likely agree to an 18-month transition plan given military intervention is unpopular and Nigerian President Bola Tinubu’s standing among young Nigerians is precarious after a Nigerian court upheld his election win. “There are no protests in Nigeria [over the election ruling], so there is no need to start a war as a distraction, because he knows that war is going to be very unpopular,” Eguegu said.
Morocco earthquake. The epicenter of the 6.8-magnitude quake that hit on Friday was in the Atlas Mountains. The rugged terrain has hampered relief efforts and prevented workers from reaching the most vulnerable. The death toll had climbed to nearly 3,000 as of Tuesday.
The Moroccan government has faced criticism for its reluctance to accept aid from all willing nations. So far, search teams from Spain, the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar are part of rescue efforts, although France, Germany, the United States, and others have also offered assistance. Algeria, which cut diplomatic ties with Rabat two years ago, has put aside hostilities by opening its airspace and offering three aircraft for humanitarian aid to Morocco.
Sudan strike. A drone attack on a densely trafficked open-air market south of the capital, Khartoum, was one of the deadliest single attacks in Sudan’s nearly five months of war, killing at least 46 people on Sunday. The paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) accused the army of was carrying out the attacks at one of the many markets that have opened up to sell goods believed to have been looted from homes by the RSF.
The Sudanese army denied responsibility, saying it never targets civilians. Neither side has been able to gain full control over the capital and they have refused to negotiate directly with each other, since fighting started between the RSF, commanded by Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemeti), and the army led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. More than 7 million people have been internally displaced.
G-20 additions. The Group of 20 nations granted the African Union permanent membership at the summit on Saturday. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, proposed the move in June, saying it would give the continent a voice. South Africa was previously the only African member of the G-20.
Although it has deferred BRICS membership for now, Nigeria, the continent’s largest economy, is seeking G-20 membership. Tinubu said, “Nigeria is poised, able, and willing to be a major player in this family of the G-20 and in shaping a new world, without whom the family will remain incomplete.” Tinubu attended the summit at Modi’s invitation; India is historically Nigeria’s top trade partner.
The Week Ahead
Sunday, Sept. 10 to Saturday, Sept. 16: Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema to visit China as it negotiates a debt restructuring with its biggest creditor.
Monday, Sept. 18, to Tuesday, Sept. 26: United Nations General Assembly held in New York.
Thursday, Sept. 21 to Friday, Sept. 22: Global Africa Business Initiative held in New York. Speakers include African Union Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, and African Export-Import Bank President Benedict Oramah.
This Week in Markets
Ghana’s critical minerals. Ghana’s sovereign wealth fund is to invest nearly $33 million in the nation’s first lithium mine. The investment will give Accra a minority 6 percent stake in Ghanaian lithium mining by Australia-based Atlantic Lithium. Analysts say Africa has been left out of U.S. partnerships and extended tax credits for mineral developments to counter China. “At present, the [U.S.-led Minerals Security Partnership] only includes Western countries, India, and two high-income and advanced East Asian countries,” wrote Gracelin Baskaran, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Given Africa’s wealth in key resources, it will be difficult to reach net zero without it.”
Ivory Coast’s deforestation costs. Ivory Coast, the world’s top cocoa grower, sent a delegation to Brussels on Monday to negotiate who will shoulder the cost of ensuring ethical and sustainable chocolate. The European Union adopted legislation in June requiring suppliers to prove their cocoa wasn’t grown on deforested land. However, Ivory Coast officials say multinationals, rather than low-income farmers, should bear the costs. According to a Bloomberg report, the Ivorian government is threatening to hold off signing new European sales contracts.
Climate change-induced extreme weather has caused low crop production in West Africa and a global cocoa supply deficit. Ghana raised the state cocoa price paid to its farmers by more than 63 percent on Saturday to boost incomes and prevent smuggling through neighboring Ivory Coast and Togo.
What We’re Reading
South Africa’s divisive politician. Mangosuthu Buthelezi—a veteran South African politician, Zulu prince, and nationalist leader who played a controversial role during South Africa’s transition from apartheid rule—died on Saturday at the age of 95. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Buthelezi presented himself to the apartheid government and the wider world as a free-market-oriented alternative to Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party.
After Mandela’s release from prison and his announcement that the ANC would end its armed struggle, the KwaZulu-Natal province erupted in violence as members of Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party clashed with supporters of the ANC-aligned United Democratic Front, leading to thousands of deaths. The white minority regime did little to stop the fighting, and elements of the security forces have long been suspected of covertly fomenting it to stall the democratic transition and weaken the ANC.
In the Daily Maverick, Cyril Madlala writes that although Buthelezi claimed to be a man of peace, “many who perished in the bloodletting between his Inkatha and the United Democratic Front regarded him as the commander-in-chief of those marauding men of war and assassins.”
Diaspora not welcome. In Al Jazeera, Kent Mensah reports that the influx of African Americans into Ghana’s capital, Accra, following the government’s Year of Return initiative has pushed up the cost of living for ordinary citizens. The Ghanaian government waived survey and registration fees for diaspora land purchases in the country, which has led to some local resentment. “We can’t even afford to buy a plot of land in our own communities because it costs an arm and a leg because of these foreigners,” one local told Mensah.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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