Gabon junta leader Gen Nguema seeks democratic way to stay in power

Friday April 19 2024

Gabon coup leader General Brice Oligui Nguema is sworn in as interim president during his swearing-in ceremony, in Libreville, Gabon on September 4, 2023. PHOTO | REUTERS


Gabon's General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema has struggled with military and civilian protocol.

On one foreign visit, he showed up at the host's presidential palace with a pistol openly strapped to his hip.

On another occasion, he shook hands with a visiting envoy while sitting down.

Bad manners, perhaps. But he has been learning politics fast since seizing power in a bloodless coup on August 30 last year.

Now peace talks are under way that should lead to constitutional and institutional reforms in the country, the last on the continent to suffer a coup.

The Central African country is one of several countries on the continent under military rule, the others being Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger. All but Chad have been suspended from AU activities for engineering unconstitutional changes of power.


Read: Africa witnesses seven coups in three years

Convened by the junta leader himself and chaired by Monsignor Jean-Patrick Iba-Ba, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Libreville, the month-long peace talks began on April 2 and will continue until April 30.

Return to civilian rule

Organisers say the dialogue will pave the way for a return to civilian rule with the drafting of a new constitution to be approved in a referendum on a date to be set by the military leader before the country holds presidential elections next year.

The junta had suspended the constitution of March 26, 1991, which established the democratic regime in Gabon, and dissolved all democratic institutions created under the same law.

But former opposition members who do not support the military leadership see the dialogue as a scheme to prepare Gen Oligui Nguema's candidacy for the upcoming elections and cement his grip on power in the country, which is rich in natural resources including timber and crude oil.

At the opening of the talks, broadcast live on Gabonese state television, Gen Nguema promised to hand power back to civilian rule after a two-year transition period.

A former head of the Republican Guards, an elite unit of the country's military, Nguema was swiftly sworn in as transitional president following a coup that deposed president Ali Bongo Ondimba, whose family had ruled the country for more than half a century.

Ali Bongo succeeded his father, Omar Bongo, who ruled for almost 42 years until he died in 2009.

At the time of the coup, Ali Bongo had been declared the winner of an election that would have seen him extend his 14-year rule and turn Gabon into a true family business.

Read: Bongo seeks election triumph after stroke recovery

Nguema took advantage of the public outcry following the elections.

The military not only denounced the results as fraudulent but also joined the opposition in accusing Ali Bongo's regime of widespread corruption and bad governance.

Speaking at the opening of the talks at the Libreville Sports Complex, Gen Nguema said the inclusive national dialogue would lay the groundwork for "free, fair, transparent and credible elections".

The chairman of the talks, Archbishop Iba-Ba, said the dialogue "carries the hopes and aspirations of the entire Gabonese people", adding that the talks would "lay the foundations for the Gabon of tomorrow, which will be oriented towards promoting the values of respect for others, human dignity and solidarity".

No timetable was given for these elections. And the choice of participants has not pleased everyone.

Opposition and independent analysts say the majority of the 600 selected to attend the talks are Nguema loyalists who want him to stay in power.

Anges Kevin Nzigou, a lawyer and executive secretary of the opposition Party for Change (PLC) and a vocal opponent of both the Bongo and Oligui regimes, argued that the choice of participants "does not respect democracy" as the military junta is "demonstrating its intention to control the debate from start to finish," according to an AFP report.

Some experts say the junta controls this state apparatus and it was always going to be the case that any national gathering would be influenced by the military.

Read: Military coups in Africa: What determines a return to civilian rule

“So, the junta was always going to dictate the parameters of any discussion on the future of the country,” Gyldas Ofoulhast-Othamot, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh's College of Social & Behavioral Sciences and Human Services, told Nation.Africa.

The delegates to the dialogue are examining some 38,000 proposals on how to make Gabon a better place to live, which, according to the Minister for Reform of Institutions, Murielle Minkoue, have been received at offices or online from all categories of people in the country of 2.3 million.

The authorities had announced that the delegates to the talks would be made up of all the country's 'key players'. But 199 of the participants are members of the transitional government and parliament, and another 104 are soldiers, according to the decree appointing the delegates to the talks.

“It is very unclear what the terms of reference of this dialogue are,” Prof Ofoulhast-Othamot told The EastAfrican. He said organising a dialogue and choosing supporters as participants is like having an encoded upshot.

'A cheap dialogue'

“It seems like the military decided to organise un dialogue au rabais (a cheap dialogue) so to speak, really for the sake of doing something with a predetermined outcome,” the political scientist said.

This is not the first time that Gabon has organised a national conference to seek solutions to political tensions. Archbishop Iba-Ba said that after the 1990 dialogue chaired by his predecessor, the country had organised four other such meetings in 1994, 2006, 2017 and most recently in February 2023 as a prelude to the August 2023 elections.

Read: Gabon new leader vows 'free' elections but gives no date

However, he said, these meetings very often ended with a sense of unfinished business, leading to a sense of discontent among the population. The winner was always Bongo Senior or Bongo Junior.

Prof Ofoulhast-Othamot says that unlike the national conference of the 1990s, "which formally restored multi-party politics, not democracy", others have not had much positive impact, and "this one is a bit strange".

But Gen Nguema defended the ongoing dialogue, which he said unlike previous conferences had brought together people from a broad spectrum of Gabonese society.  These include religious leaders, the junta, government ministers, members of civil society and ordinary citizens.

Archbishop Iba-Ba said "so much damage has been done" over the years, but cautioned delegates against using the talks to settle scores. "We must not give in to the temptation of blame or revenge," the prelate said.

A disproportionate number of the delegates to the dialogue are from the political establishment.

Although a post-coup charter bans all leaders of transitional bodies, including Gen Nguema, from running for president, the opposition and analysts believe the constitution will be tinkered with to allow the junta leader to run for the presidency in 2025.

Gen Nguema started out promising to chart a new course for Gabon.

But the rhetoric has not matched the practice, and only he knows if he wants to stay in power.

"From the outside, everything seems to indicate that he [General Oligui Nguema] certainly wants to remain at the centre of Gabonese politics. And the current direction of the transition seems to support this assessment," said Prof Ofoulhast-Othamot.