People in the central African state of Gabon awaited a steer on their future on Thursday after rebel army officers brought the curtain down on 55 years of rule by the Bongo family.
President Ali Bongo Ondimba, whose father Omar had reigned for over four decades, was deposed on Wednesday, only moments after being declared the clear winner in highly contested elections.
Amid demonstrations of joy in the oil-rich state, the coup leaders appointed General Brice Oligui Nguema, head of the elite Republican Guard, as Gabon’s “transitional president.”
They also restored internet connectivity and broadcasts by three influential French media outlets that had been taken off on Saturday evening by Bongo’s government.
However, they maintained a curfew from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. “to maintain calm and serenity,” and Gabon’s borders remained closed.
The Gabonese people and the international community are waiting to see how long military rule will endure and how the transition to civilian government will go.
Five additional African countries — Mali, Guinea, Sudan, Burkina Faso, and Niger — have had coups in the last three years, with their new rulers refusing calls for a quick return to barracks.
Another uncertainty is Bongo’s own destiny, as the United Nations and China have both requested guarantees for his safety.
Following the death of his father, who allegedly acquired a fortune from Gabon’s oil resources, Bongo was elected in 2009 after decades as a man with a playboy persona.
He was re-elected in 2016 despite significant opposition, before suffering a stroke in 2018 that reduced his grasp on power.
On Wednesday, the coup leaders said that Bongo had been placed under house arrest and “placed in retirement.”
But during those tumultuous first hours, Bongo was able to release a video in which he appealed to “all friends that we have all over the world… to make noise” on his behalf.
His son and close adviser Noureddin Bongo Valentin, his chief of staff Ian Ghislain Ngoulou, his deputy, two other presidential advisers and the two top officials in the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) “have been arrested”, a military leader said.
They are accused of treason, embezzlement, corruption and falsifying the president’s signature, among other allegations, he said.
The coup announcement came only moments after the national election authorities declared Bongo had won a third term with 64.27 percent of the vote in Saturday’s poll.
The opposition dubbed the election a sham, and new leaders, calling themselves the Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions (CTRI), declared it void.
The elections “did not meet the conditions for a transparent, credible and inclusive ballot so much hoped for by the people of Gabon,” they said in a statement.
“Added to this is irresponsible and unpredictable governance, resulting in a continuing deterioration in social cohesion, with the risk of leading the country in chaos.”
The claimed takeover sparked condemnation from the African Union and alarm from Nigeria, which warned of Africa’s “contagious autocracy.”
In France, where Bongo’s loss would mark a further blow to Paris’ influence in Africa, the government said it “condemns the coup” and reiterated its desire “to see the results of the election respected, once they are known”.
But other reactions were more nuanced, focusing particularly on the credibility of the vote itself.
“Naturally, military coups are not the solution, but we must not forget that in Gabon there had been elections full of irregularities,” said the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.
A rigged vote could amount to a civilian “institutional coup,” he said.
Democratically elected presidents in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger were deposed by troops enraged by failures to quell a violent jihadist insurgency.
The US State Department stated that it was “strongly opposed to military seizures,” but expressed concern about the “lack of transparency and reports of election irregularities.”
According to the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the elections were held without international observers, and foreign journalists were mostly barred from covering the event.