Ali Bongo and the danger of overstaying in power

Thursday August 31 2023
Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba

Gabon's deposed president Ali Bongo Ondimba. PHOTO | AFP


Ali Bongo Ondimba thought he had won elections to extend his 14-year stay in power. Then things moved so fast. Some 24 hours later, he, his clan and senior state officials were facing accusations of “active corruption, drug trafficking, high treason and financial embezzlement in organised gangs”.

Deposed, powerless and under house arrest, Bongo, 64, is now at the mercy of the military. But at least they allowed him free internet, where he asked the world to "make some noise" about his situation.

Read: Gabon president placed under house arrest, calls for help

How did a man from such a powerful clan in Gabonese politics misread the mood of his own military? The reason may lie in the fact that Gabon, unlike many francophone countries, had never faced a military coup.

In 1964, independence President Léon Mba was initially overthrown, but the coup only lasted a few hours. The French army restored him back to power. In 2019, there was another attempt on Ali Bongo, but it failed too after sections of the army curtailed the mutineers. So, it created certainty: that the army itself was never united in toppling a leader.

Instead, the military was known to play football, famous for the FC 105 Libreville, the team that inspired Franco Luambo Makiadi’s famous song by the same name. No wonder the Bongo family were the patrons of the team.


End of patriarchal reign?

Yet, something may have been cooking under his nose. In the history of Gabon, the Bongo family has been in power for 55 years.

Read: Gabon: half a century ruled by Bongo family

First, it was his father Omar Bongo who ruled for more than four decades.

Ali’s reign was not just his country’s; he was also a patriarch in his family.

So, it didn’t come as a surprise after he defeated 12 challengers, including the main opponent, Albert Ondo Ossa, who had already begun to claim victory. 

On Tuesday, the country's electoral commission declared Ali Bongo the winner with 64.27 percent of the vote. But he had no time to enjoy his victory. Hours later, the military claimed he was "under house arrest alongside his family and doctors".

Ironically, the military turned the internet back on, having been off during the tense hours of vote counting, to allow Ali Bongo to send out an SOS, in English, that he had been detained at his residence, not really knowing what was going on and that his son “is in another place” and his wife in another place too.

The army also spoke to the world, announcing that all institutions of government had been dissolved, including the constitutional court, and that the borders were shut. The army later announced that Gen Brice Nguema would be the transitional President.

Then it went for more of Bongo’s inner circle: Noureddin Bongo Valentin, the president's son, was detained. He was the supposed apparent heir, a possible sign that the Bongo family weren’t done with ruling the country.

Gabon is a country of paradoxes. Its forest cover makes it one of the few African ‘lungs’ left with natural forests. Its GDP per capita is one of the highest on the continent. In the past decades, it used to give loans to France. A natural timber source and full of petro carbons, it is a rich land.

Its politics is poor and considered a constant victim of neocolonialism to France.

Mixed reactions on Gabon coup

France, regarded as the protective power of the Bongo clan, on Wednesday seemed to have been taken by surprise  and "condemned the coup".

Olivier Véran, spokesman for the French government, declared that France was "closely monitoring the situation" and called for "the results of the elections to be respected”.

China called for "the security of President Ali Bongo to be guaranteed".

Read: China calls for safety of Gabon's president to be guaranteed

Russia also expressed its concern.

The African Union condemned the coup but skipped the election part. Traditionally, no one publicly endorses a coup. But in Gabon and across social media, this seemed popular.

“The military takeover in Gabon will be hard to criticise, given the series of votes, I can’t call them democratic elections which kept Bongo family in power for 56 years,” said Tibor Nagy, a former US assistant secretary of state for African Affairs.

“I’m sure that Biyas and Obiangs are paying close attention,” he wrote on X, referring to Cameroonian President Paul Biya and Equatorial Guinea’s Obiang Nguema, Africa’s longest serving head of state.

Francis Kpatinde, a Francophone political analyst, argued that “the scenes of jubilation by the people on Wednesday was an indicator of the weariness of Gabonese citizens with the Bongo clan”.

He added that France may have been blinded by the favours it received from the Bongos and forgot that offshoots of mutiny could grow to maturity.

“No alarm was sounded. The only way Gabon has now been able to get rid of its presidential puppet is for its military to intervene."

“Once again, Macron has compromised France by supporting the unbearable to the very end. Africans are turning the page,” added French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Some analysts fear that the wave of coups d'état in West Africa could now spread to Central African countries. And the common thread of recent coups in the West African region, and Gabon, is that they are all French speaking countries.

Read: Africa witnesses seven coups in three years

In Gabon, some argue the presidential terms are so long that it bores the citizens. At seven years per term, Ali Bongo was due to begin his third.

Bongo's upbringing

Bongo was born Alain-Bernard Bongo on February 9, 1959, in Brazzaville, neighbouring Republic of Congo. He adopted the name Ali when he converted to Islam in 1973. Initially, he wanted to be a musician and by 1977, he was appearing as one. He was undoubtedly influenced by his mother Patience Dabany, a professional singer who made her career with well-known songs in French-speaking Africa.

But he was already born with a golden spoon in his mouth. He was barely 8 when his father became President of Gabon, following the death of President Léon Mba.

In his teens, Ali Bongo, trotted between Africa and Europe, attracted to the glitzy life of a singer rather than the rough and tumble of political life. He was drawn to funk, and the rhythms played by American singers. He learnt English early, a great gift in a French-speaking country. He imitated James Brown and he looked for Brown’s associates to record his first and only album, A Brand-New Man. He was just 18.

He surrounded himself with Charles Bobbit, ex-manager, and above all he called on Fred Wesley, a trombonist and mainstay with Maceo Parker, among others. He sang ‘You make me feel like a brand-new man.’ Then he enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris to study law.

Political career

But when he returned to Gabon for good, his father convinced him to embark on a political career. Gone were the extravagant outfits of a singer, replaced by the suits and ties of a politician. He joined his father's cabinet in 1987. From 1989 to 1991, he was Minister for Foreign Affairs in the government of Casimir Oyé Mba, the Prime Minister.

But he was forced to leave the government because of his age. Under the 1991 Constitution, a minister was supposed to be 35 or older. Ali Bongo was 32 at the time. He then ran successfully in the 1990 legislative elections in Haut-Ogooué. In 1996, he ran for the leadership of Haut-Ogooué province, the stronghold of his cousin, the Minister for Defence then, former Chief of Staff Idriss Ngari. He had the support of his father.

In February 1999, Ali Bongo became Minister for Defence, replacing Idriss Ngari in the government. He held this post until the death of his father, Omar Bongo, in 2009. A few weeks after his father's death, Ali was nominated as the candidate of the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) on August 30, 2009. He was elected President on October 12, 2009, in an election contested by André Mba Obame and Pierre Mamboundou.

He won 41.7 percent of the vote, ahead of Pierre Mamboundou and André Mba Obame. Following the announcement of the results, riots broke out in Port-Gentil, one of the cities in the country and an opposition stronghold. They were violently suppressed, leaving at least 15 people dead. 

Read: Gabon coup bid highlights country in uncertainty

In 2016, Ali Bongo's re-election, ahead of Jean Ping, gave rise to another round of protests. This election had some form of ironic poetic justice to it.

Ping had been Chairperson of the African Union Commission where he had been accused of overlooking electoral injustices in Kenya and Zimbabwe. When he met the same medicine, the African Union couldn’t help him; it endorsed the winner and moved on.

Ping was binned to political oblivion and Ali Bongo started consolidating his grip on power, opening major projects.  He would launch the Transformation Acceleration Plan (PAT) where he said Gabon would move away from oil dependency and transform its economic model. At the time, Gabonese experts claimed that the PAT had helped to positively modify the structure of GDP in Gabon, increasing the relative share of new growth drivers, i.e., mining, agro-industry and wood from 56 percent to 67 percent between 2010 and 2019.

This policy of diversification has enabled the rise in sectors such as production of manganese, agro-industry and timber.

Today, the UNDP Human Development Index ranks Gabon 8th in Africa and 112th in the world. But its largest portion of the population is still poor.

His health didn’t play along, however. In 2018, while on an official visit to Saudi Arabia, he suffered a stroke. His son Valentin was placed in the strategic position of general coordinator of presidential affairs. Thanks to quality care in Saudi Arabia, Ali Bongo Ondimba's life was saved. He continues to receive appropriate care, although he claimed before elections he was back in harness. 

The new strongman Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema, is a Moroccan-trained general from Haut-Ogooué, the cradle of the Bongo family. He is said to be the cousin of the overthrown president. Bongo, meanwhile, has been receiving medical care from the Moroccans. So much for ironic twists.