President Bongo Safe After Military Coup Fails In Oil-Rich Gabon

Soldiers in Gabon briefly took over a state radio in a failed coup attempt on Monday, but the government said four of the plotters had been arrested and that "normalcy would be restored" in the oil-rich Central African nation. A fifth suspect was on the run after soldiers announced plans for a “national council of restoration,” in the oil-rich country, where the ruling Bongo family has been dogged by accusations of corruption and fraud during nearly a half-century in power, the NYT noted.

“The army has decided to put itself on the side of the people in order to save Gabon from chaos,” soldiers said after they took over a Gabon radio station.

On Monday, government soldiers swarmed the streets of the capital, Libreville, guarding the national radio and TV stations, and military tanks and armed vehicles were visible. Taking a page out of every populist playbook, the military officers announced plans to "save a democracy in danger."

However, a few hours later, democracy appeared to be in danger again as thing were returning to normal: "The government is in place,” a government spokesman, Guy-Bertrand Mapangou, told France 24. “The institutions are in place."

Meanwhile, the target of the coup, President Ali Bongo Ondimba, has been out of Gabon since October while receiving medical treatment for what many believe was a stroke he suffered while attending a conference in Saudi Arabia according to the NYT. He had sought to reassure the nation he was fit during a New Year’s Eve speech televised from Morocco, where he is recuperating.

Lt. Kelly Ondo Obiang, the leader of the self-declared - and very short-lived - Patriotic Movement of the Defense and Security Forces of Gabon, said on state radio that the speech “reinforced doubts about the president’s ability to continue to carry out of the responsibilities of his office,” Reuters reported.

“The eagerly awaited day has arrived when the army has decided to put itself on the side of the people in order to save Gabon from chaos,” a soldier said in a video that appeared on social media, Agence France-Presse reported. “If you are eating, stop; if you are having a drink, stop; if you are sleeping, wake up. Wake up your neighbors.”

The first indication that something was amiss came early Monday in Libreville, when songs from the campaign of Jean Ping, Mr. Bongo’s chief opponent in the 2016 presidential election, were broadcast over national radio. A call to the station was answered by Lieutenant Obiang, who said he would announce a coup shortly. He went on the air and did just that, while station employees were held hostage during the broadcast. After government forces stormed the station, one of the soldiers took the clothes of an employee to make his escape.

However, a few hours later the neighbors were sleeping again when the attempted coup attempt appeared to fail. Guy-Bertrand Mapangou, a spokesman for the Gabonese government, told the BBC that the situation in the country is now “under control.”

“The situation is calm. The gendarmes who are often stationed there have taken control of the entire area around the radio and TV headquarters, so everything is back to normal”, Mapangou told the BBC.

According to the BBC’s Firmain Eric Mbadinga, the coup attempt was a huge surprise because the army has always been loyal to the family of the president. 

None of this is to say that the coup plotters did not have a legitimate claim. As the NYT reports, Bongo’s family has long been criticized for enriching itself with proceeds from the country’s oil and mineral wealth while much of its population lives in poverty.

Curiously, some saw through the coup attempt which they equated to the "failed coup" in Turkey in the summer of 2016. Conspiracy theories were circulating in Gabon throughout the day, including one that the coup attempt was staged by Bongo as a way to send a message that he would quash any effort to seize power.

During his speech on New Year’s Eve, Mr. Bongo said, “It is true that I have been through a difficult period, as sometimes happens in life. Today, as you can see, I am better and I am preparing to meet you again soon.” The video failed to put the matter to rest, with observers noting that Mr. Bongo slurred some words and did not move his right arm.

Bongo’s time as president has been accompanied by criticism that he has carried out fraudulent elections, sometimes to violent ends, in hopes of hanging on to power. His father, Omar, was president for 42 years before dying in office in 2009. When Bongo was first elected to replace his father, logistical issues during an unanticipated election led to accusations of irregularities. Bongo edged out his opponent, Jean Ping, but the 2016 contest was marred by accusations that the vote counting was tainted by fraud.

Protesters at the time set fire to the Parliament building, and the presidential guard was accused of attacking Mr. Ping’s headquarters, killing two people and wounding several others.

Oil-rich Gabon, which lies on the Atlantic Coast in Central Africa, is a member of OPEC. Gabon first became a full member of the organization back in 1975, but terminated its membership in 1995. On July 1, 2016, Gabon re-joined the OPEC group of the oil exporting nations. 

Gabon’s oil production in November was 176,000 bpd, down by 11,000 bpd compared to October, according to OPEC’s latest Monthly Oil Market Report (MOMR). In terms of oil production, Gabon is one of OPEC’s smallest members—only Equatorial Guinea produced less oil than Gabon in November, at 125,000 bpd on average. Any potential decline in Gabon’s oil production due to the coup would not have any noticeable effect on OPEC’s total production, considering that Gabon’s output accounts for just 0.5 percent of the cartel’s total production.

Meanwhile, what is perhaps surprising is that there have not been more military coups in recent years. As Marcel Dirsus, strategist at Occam Strategies points out, there has been a precipitous decline in both successful and failed coup attempts worldwide over the last couple of decades.

Another chart shows coup attempts by country and region between 1950 and 2010: it indicates that coup attempts were most common in the Americas and Africa, pointing out, without sarcasm, that "some individual countries are particularly coup-prone."