Africa: Gabon's Coup May Be Over, but Its Many Crises Are Not

President Ali Bongo Ondimba (file photo).
8 January 2019

It's not just a few soldiers that are perturbed by Gabon's deepening political crises and President Bongo's ill health.

In the early hours of Monday 7 January 2019, a small group of junior officers of the Gabon's presidential guard seized the national TV station in an apparent coup attempt. Their leader, Lt Kelly Ondo Obiang announced the creation of a "National Council for the Restoration [of Democracy]" in order to "restore democracy to preserve the territorial integrity of the state and national cohesion".

Obiang declared that Gabon's current institutions are "illegitimate and illegal" and that the army had decided to take the side of the people to save the country from chaos. He called upon on all security forces and the Gabonese youth to join what he termed "Operation Dignity".

A few hours later, however, the government announced the coup attempt had failed. It said it had neutralised all the soldiers involved, killing two and arresting the remaining eight. In that time, it seems that none of the coup leaders' colleagues in the barracks heeded their call to help overthrow the government.

Although the details about this bizarre coup attempt are still emerging, it seems to have been the work of amateurs without a real operational plan on how to seize power. Yet while the government survived with relatively little fuss, the coup attempt did not come as a great surprise and highlights the regime's fragility in the face of a deepening political crisis.

An incapacitated president

One of the leading causes of Gabon's crisis is the fact that President Ali Bongo Ondimba has been absent from the country for over two months now. While attending a conference in Saudi Arabia last October, he suffered a stroke. He underwent surgery in Riyadh before being transferred to a military hospital in Morocco in December, where he remains to this day. The regime has downplayed the seriousness of his health issues amidst a constitutional crisis and power vacuum.

The Gabonese people waited anxiously for the traditional New Year's Eve address where they would get to see and hear their president for the first time in months. In a pre-recorded message that lasted a mere two minutes, Bongo's right arm appeared to be partly paralysed, his eyes were unfocused and he slurred. Rather than calming fears about his health, Bongo's performance raised even more questions about his ability to fulfil his presidential duties.

The would-be coup leader directly referenced these concerns yesterday, saying: "Once again, one time too many, the wielders of power deceptively continue to instrumentalise the person of Ali Bongo Ondimba, a patient devoid of many of his physical and mental faculties."

A constitutional crisis

Under the constitution, a vacancy of power in the presidency, declared by the Constitutional Court, requires Gabon to hold elections 30 to 60 days after the declaration. During this period, a transitional government, led by the Senate President, takes over.

In order to avoid this, however, the Constitutional Court in November amended the constitution. It inserted a clause that allowed certain powers to be transferred to the Prime Minister or Vice-President in the event of the president's "temporary unavailability". It did not impose any time limit on this incapacitation.

This constitutional amendment avoided the need for elections, but it did not go through a parliamentary vote or popular referendum. Instead, it was made unilaterally by the Constitutional Court, led by Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo, a close member of the ruling Bongo family.

Mborantsuo has been president of the court since its inception in 1991. In that time, the court has helped the Bongo dynasty maintain its more than half-century rule, in which time it has become one of the most notoriously corrupt regimes in Africa. In 2009, for instance, the court oversaw the transfer of power from the late Omar Bongo, who had been in power for 42 years, to his son Ali following contentious elections. In 2016, the court then upheld heavily disputed presidential election results that claimed Ali Bongo had won by a margin of just 1.6%.

By avoiding declaring a vacancy of power and the holding of elections, the court seems to have kept the Bongo family in office once again. If a vote were held in today's conditions, the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) would likely lose.

Challenges from without and within

Despite avoiding elections and surviving a coup attempt, Gabon's regime is not out of the woods by any means.

To begin with, another institutional crisis is looming. On 27 December 2018, the Constitutional Court published the official results of the October legislative elections. According to the constitution, this announcement officially marks the end of the current government. Gabon has been without a National Assembly since last April and may soon be without an official government.

The President is now required to appoint (or reappoint) a Prime Minister to form a fresh government. A new clause in the constitution also states that all ministers must be sown-in by the president, a requirement that may be difficult with Bongo still recovering in Morocco.

The regime also faces challenges from the opposition. Jean Ping, along with many analysts, believe he was the true winner of the 2016 presidential election and still claims to be Gabon's president-elect. He has tried to use the current crisis to rally his base. He has not called for a military takeover, but called for a popular uprising to unseat President Bongo.

Gabon's failed coup will have no doubt made the regime nervous and aware of its tenuous grip on the state. This situation is untenable and calls for immediate measures. These demands are coming not just from the opposition and some sections of the army, but also from within the ruling party which has seen insiders defect in both 2009 and 2016. After 50 years in power, it remains to be seen how much longer the Bongo dynasty can survive.

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