- Omar Bongo was president of Gabon for four decades. In 1967, following the death of Leon Mba, he rose to the seat of power for the country with France’s backing. Throughout his tenure, various measures benefited Omar Bongo in securing his power. Under Gabon’s one-party system, oppositional leaders struggled to establish their platforms. Furthermore, run-off elections were eliminated, reducing the opportunity for voters to contest the results legitimately.
- Ali Bongo succeeded his father as the President of Gabon following Omar Bongo’s death in 2009. The national election confirmed the son as president with a 42% majority. Following these results, violence took to the streets as many decried the elections as rigged. The two leading oppositional leaders split the vote with one receiving 25% of the vote and the other receiving 26%.
- On August 26, Gabon’s presidential election was held. This included a third term candidacy of Ali Bongo. The results released on the 30th indicated that Bongo won 64% of the votes. Soon after the election result announcement, with a coup d’état Ali Bongo was placed under house arrest. The military leader, General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema assumed the head of state.
The continent of Africa experienced another coup, with the most recent one becoming the 7th in the last 3 years. In what appears to be a trend of coups, Gabon is the latest example. There is need for greater insight into why this trend of coups formed in the first place, and then if this trend means greater or lesser democracy and progress for the experiencing countries.
Curiously, the people of Gabon welcome the military action. As represented with the coups in recent years, a civilian transition of power is a long-suffering process. In part, the true intentions of the military junta are not self-evident, allowing for corrupt officials to consolidate the power they stole from the previous despot.
Gabon has yearned for a change of leadership for five decades. The Bongo family, which controlled the country, made a concerted effort to distort true democratic progress. This African nation holds potential on the world stage, but various efforts of corrupted figures have left the Gabonese people to suffer. Despite the chronic corruption found in the government, Gabon, as well as other African nations, believe that votes are important.
The Challenge of Democracy
At the heart of every democracy is the election. Developed from two Greek words, “demos,” meaning people, and “kratos,” meaning power, democracy captures the idea of power to the people. In its base form, all people participate in an election, where every person votes on every issue. This is called a direct democracy. However, most contemporary models utilize a representative democracy, or a government system where people vote on representatives to advocate on their behalf for many issues.
The Council of Europe identifies democracy as a quality that can either be improved upon or reduced. This definition is more forgiving for countries which stray from the democratic course from time to time and does not label autocracies as undemocratic. Rather, the lens with which to view these troubled countries is one of hope for progress. Internalizing this concept would mean that countries experiencing a coup still have the means to embody democratic ideals.
For the past 55 years in Gabon, a father and son from the Bongo family have ruled the country. Despite claims of democracy, Gabon is rife with election rigging claims and corruption. This was the case for Omar Bongo who ruled the country for over 40 years. Under his tenure, the country saw limited choice of leaders with a single party system. Likewise, Omar eliminated the vice president’s office, securing his power in the country and effectively excluding any opposition.
Upon his Omar’s death in 2009, an interim government was hastily established until an election could be held. During this period, Ali Bongo was able to secure key positions in the government while his aunt presided in the Constitutional Council. Under the protection of nepotism, Ali Bongo deliberately ignored the interim government’s policy of forfeiting a minister position in order to run for president.
The electoral commission, which validates the votes, was packed with people sharing allegiance with Ali Bongo. Of the 120 members, 77 were from the same region as Ali Bongo and 93 of the members were from the same party. Accordingly, election results were well guarded by the public and Ali Bongo was announced the winner. In turn, after a request was submitted to the Constitution Court to review the irregularities in the election, Ali Bongo’s aunt confirmed him as the president.
In 2016, Ali Bongo won the election with a slim margin, earning 49.8% of the vote against rival Jean Ping with 48.23%. Jean Ping contested the results, and before the announced Bongo victory, he claimed success for himself. The theory behind this move was to prepare his continents for an attempt by the government to take the presidency away from him. Ping’s act shares similar undertones with President Trump announcing his victory early during the 2020 election count, only to late contest the results and claim the election was stolen from him.
Unlike in the United States, votes in Gabon are not released incrementally. This lack of transparency, which was identified by the EU, means that fraud can take place. The AU acknowledged the fact that there were peaceful elections but encouraged the democratic and legal process for disputing election results.
The circumstances surrounding the 2023 election in Gabon were hardly different. A recent law made it more difficult for opposing parties to win a foothold, stating that parliament and presidential votes must be from the same party. Furthermore, third-party observers were prohibited from election coverage before the results were announced, with French news outlets among those impacted.
Many grievances lie not only in the accusations of election fraud but also in claims of corruption and personal gain from the country’s resources. The country’s success as the third highest GDP per capita in Africa and its rich oil reserves and other natural resources does not explain why a third of its population lives in poverty. Accordingly, many of Omar’s children have been indited in crimes of misappropriation of state funds.
Following the coup, the controlling military junta began investigating embezzlement and money laundering. In connection to these investigations the first lady, Sylvia Bongo Ondimba, and Ali Bongo’s oldest son, Noureddin Bongo Valentin, have been detained in connection with these crimes. While Sylvia’s lawyers in Paris filed a complaint, citing an apparent hostage-taking, locals seem to support the junta’s anti-corruption raid.
General Nguema and his cabal have taken great action to counter the allegations of corruption in the government. Other than the Bongo family members, former ministers and cabinet ministers face crimes of embezzlement. Accordingly, General Nguema held a meeting with many business leaders to reverse the overcharging claims and return the money to the country. Finally, General Nguema has promised to institute a new constitution that protects human rights and is voted into power.
A previously attempted coup occurred in 2019 following Ali Bongo’s stroke, leaving many questioning his leadership ability. Ali Bongo quelled the coup and then restructured government positions to secure his power. Family members weren’t immune from this act. Ali Bongo dismissed his sister and half-brother while simultaneously appointing Noureddin to a high position.
The present coup is responding to many of the concerns that citizens of Gabon shared. However, the overthrow of power might persist problems for the nation. General Nguema’s coup began hours after the election results, leaving some experts to argue that it was preplanned. Backing this assertion is that General Nguema is the cousin to Ali Bongo, causing some to postulate an internal power struggle that occurred within the extended Bongo family. Presently, the true intentions of the military junta have not yet been uncovered.
In the wake of General Nguema’s claim to power, other African nations made some sweeping changes. Cameroon and Rwanda both restructured their military leadership, with the former’s leader remaining in power for 40 years and the latter for 20.
The outlook remains bleak for many African nations, not just Gabon. Since 1952, there have been over 200 coup attempts, with half of them being successful. Since 2020, there have been seven successful coups, and a few that were thwarted. The constant threat of military usurping is symptomatic of people’s belief in democratic procedures.
A survey conducted by Afrobarometer reveals that only 44% of Africans believe they maintain the power to vote ineffective leaders out of office. Contrasting this idea is another statistic showing that about two-thirds of the respondents thought elections were mostly free and fair.
The survey indicates that respondents maintain hope in their respective country’s democratic processes but expressed legitimate concerns over election practices. Analysts argue that democracy on the African continent is ambiguous, with even sham elections embodying democratic values.
Popular support for coups is a complicated issue. While people celebrate in the streets at the overthrown government, it does not reflect support for the military. This vital nuance likely stems from the skepticism of voting out ineffective leaders.
Many of these coups have a plan for civilian transition of power. Of the most recent coups, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali have scheduled changes of control in 2024. Niger has proposed a three-year transition period, and now Gabon plans a transition with an undetermined date. While there is lip service about returning to democratic procedures, the cycle of taking power by force endures.
Democracy is tough to sustain when coups are the convenient option to oust ineffective leaders. With citizens supportive of a change in the status quo, military leaders can carry the façade of a democratic revolution. Yet many of these leaders continue to lead their countries for decades after the change of power. Ultimately, this reflects how there is very little consequence to a coup, and democratic progress for these nations is stalled.
To dispel the apathy toward democracy in military coup governed nations is to reexamine the election practices. Most Africans have faith in an electoral system. The disconnect lies in the voters’ belief in challenging ineffective leaders. The coup in Gabon reportedly was initiated to suppress backlash from an upset nation to root out corruption. Yet, the people of Gabon were not afforded their democratic right to challenge the election. Now, Gabon waits in limbo for their transition back to civilian elections.
The opaque nature of election counting and the prohibition of independent agencies covering the results is problematic. Democracy is derived from the power of the people. As such, the emphasis on this value needs to return to people. When the people feel they can vote for and remove a political leader, then their wants are effectively represented. It is at this juncture that democratic progress will grow.
Joshua Perkins is a research assistant intern at Beyond the Horizon ISSG. He is also pursuing a degree in Homeland Security with an emphasis in International Relations through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.