Gabon coup bid highlights country in grip of uncertainty

Tuesday January 8 2019

Gabon coup

Gabonese gendarmes patrol on the Democracy square in Libreville on January 7, 2018 after a group of soldiers sought to take power in Gabon while the country's ailing president was abroad. PHOTO | STEVE JORDAN | AFP 

By AFP
More by this Author

"Who's in charge?" asked Gaston, a resident of Libreville, a day after Gabon's armed forces quelled an attempted coup.

Calm has returned to the Gabonese capital after several hours of upheaval, yet Gaston's question is on many lips.

The brief attempt on power has prompted many to ponder the flux gripping a country where political change has been negligible for more than half a century.

Gabon has been without effective government since October, when President Ali Bongo suffered a stroke while visiting Saudi Arabia.

Bongo, 59, is the son of Omar Bongo, who became head of state in 1967 and died in June 2009, leaving a legacy of corruption allegations.

In the kingdom of "kongossa" — gossip in local slang— tongues have wagged over the lack of detailed information about Bongo's health.

The head of state has been flown to Morocco where he recorded a New Year's Eve address marked by slurred words and a squint that critics said raised even more alarming questions about his health.

'Coup attempt'

In his lengthening absence, a small group of soldiers stormed the state broadcasting headquarters in the capital on Monday and went on the air urging the Gabonese people to "rise up."

The coup attempt turned out to be short lived. Security forces attacked the building and arrested the leader, killed two and freed radio technicians and journalists who had been held hostage.

The army was deployed in the capital and armoured vehicles patrolled the streets, but on Tuesday most shops and restaurants were open and the seafront avenue, where the broadcasting centre is located, reopened to traffic.

The internet, which had been cut, was restored, although the round-the-clock state-run news channel Gabon 24 was off the air.

Bongo's absence

In a country based on an executive president, Bongo's absence has been felt in many ways, from institutional fog to press speculation of tensions between Bongo's cabinet director, Brice Laccruche Alihanga, and the head of the intelligence services, Frederic Bongo.

Gabon is without a new prime minister — there were legislative elections last October, but it is the job of the head of state to name someone to the post.

The opposition has sought to have the Constitutional Court officially declare a power vacuum in Bongo's absence, but court president Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo instead announced a new clause in the basic law to clarify the situation, without a parliamentary vote.

"Gabon on (very dangerous) automatic pilot," an opposition newspaper headlined early in November, prompting a ban on publication.

Frustration, anxiety or anger are not hard to find in the streets of Libreville, although few wish to speak on the record, fearing retribution.

"What happened (Monday) was a good thing, it should have worked. We have to get out of this situation," said Stephane, a 27-year-old tripe seller.

He said he had been among people who went out in response to the rebels' appeal for an uprising.

"We weren't criminals or looters. We answered the call. We are 120-percent fed up!" he said.

The authorities remain consistent in their communications. The situation after the attempted coup is "normal," Bongo is "doing fine" and "will soon come back."

"It's as if absolutely nothing has happened," snorted an angry citizen.

"They did the same thing to us in 2016," the individual said, referring to the government's posture after a bitterly contested presidential election was followed by clashes.

"Can you understand how frustrating it is to live in a country where there is such a blackout?"

Advertisement