Coup in Gabon: Change of Persons Not of Structures


René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

1 Sep 2023 – On 27 August, some of the military of Gabon, in particular members of the Presidential Guard, took power and placed President Ali Bongo Ondimba under house arrest.  General Brice Oligui Nguema, leader of the Presidential Guard, was named as the transitional leader of what was called “The Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions”.  All other institutions, ministries and parliament were abolished. Some of the former ministers were also placed under house arrest.

The coup most likely brings to an end the rule by the Bongo family from 1967 to 2023, When I was last in Gabon in 1966, I was told by a high level Frenchman in the President’s office that Albert  Bongo was the up-and-coming person to watch.  The first president of Gabon from 1960 was Léon M’ba.  By 1966 he was old and ill. His Vice-President Paul-Marie Yembit was there because there had to be someone from the south to balance the northerner Léon M’ba.  All the distribution of government posts wax on an ethnic basis.  However, the south of Gabon was less developed than the north and so had fewer educated people.

Thus, in early 1967 Yembit was pushed out of his post of Vice President, replaced by Albert Bongo.  Léon M’ba  went to hospital in France and died shortly afterwards. The Gabonese constitution had been modified shortly before M’ba death so that the Vice President automatically  became President  – USA  style – without a new election being held.

Albert Bongo was President from 1967 until his death in 2009, at which point his son became President from 2009 until August 2023.  At some point at the urging of Mouammar Kadafi of Libya (and, no doubt in exchange for money) Albert Bongo  became a Muslim and changed his name from Albert to Omar.  He named his son Ali.  However, there was no effort to extend Islam in Gabon.  Roman Catholic and Protestant chuches were the key religious institutions and ran important primary and secondary schools.  Muslims were nearly all foreigners – mostly small shopkeepers and traders from northern Nigeria and the Sahel states.Gabon played no role in the affairs of Islamic countries.  Its strong political ties were to its neighbors: Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, and Congo-Brazzaville.

Money was always the aim of the Bongo family.  They drew much of their wealth from the contracts with the French firms which controlled the oil, mining and tropical wood exporting industries.  Anyone wnting to do business in Gabon had to give monetary “gifts” to the Bongo family or to the small number of relatives and close friends who participated in the political structures.

Unfortunately for the bulk of the population of Gabon, the Bongos did not spend their money in Gabon, but rather placed it in France.  The French government, reacting to pressure from reformers, created a law on “biens mal acquis ” – money held in France that may have been taken from governments by corruption.  The French government services that oversaw the “biens mal acquis” investigations found that the Bongo family had 39 properties in France, 70 bank accounts, and a fleet of expensive autos.

The economic ties with France have started to change during the last decade.  China has become the top trade partner for the last 9 years.  This shift has not yet been seen on the political front, but Gabonese political figures have been increasingly going on visits to China.

The consequences of the coup in Gabon are unlikely to produce any quick changes in structures, but the situation merits watching closely.


René Wadlow is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation and problem-solving in economic and social issues, and editor of Transnational Perspectives.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 4 Sep 2023.

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