Gabon, an oil-rich coastal country in Central Africa, has found itself at the center of global attention as military officers in the nation declared they had seized power in an apparent coup on Wednesday.
The announcement made on state-run television is perhaps the most significant threat to the country's dynastic leadership and highlights the underlying power struggles that have been simmering for years.
The coup also heightened regional and global concerns about a "coup contagion" gripping West Africa.
The Bongo dynasty
Gabon has been ruled by the Bongo family for more than half a century. Omar Bongo Ondimba, who served as the president of Gabon for 42 years until his death in 2009, was a former French air force officer and politician who took power in the post-independence years.
Omar Bongo's legacy was carried forward by his son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, who took office after an election in 2009 that saw the worst post-election violence in years. The Bongo family's extended rule has ensured political stability that is rare for the region, but it has also been dogged by allegations of corruption and nepotism.
"One family has turned the country into a dynasty," Henry Muguzi, a coordinator for the African Election Observers Network in Kampala, Uganda, told VOA. "Leadership is handed over from father to son, as if there are no other Gabonese that have capacity to do this."
In 2022, Omar Bongo's children were charged with corruption and embezzlement of public funds in France. French prosecutors said the Bongo family had fraudulently acquired an estimated $92 million in France. The case is ongoing, and all accused children of Omar Bongo denied any knowledge of the origins of the assets.
In 2010, an investigation by the advocacy group Transparency International campaigned against what it called Bongo's "ill-gotten gains," pointing to the need for accountability and financial transparency.
Gabon's latest presidential election was held Saturday against the backdrop of those historical grievances. Ali Bongo was announced the winner on Wednesday for a third term with 64.27% of the vote, according to the Gabonese Election Centre. But the opposition denounced the results as fraudulent.
Challenges to dynastic rule
The coup Wednesday in the early hours underscores the growing dissatisfaction within segments of Gabonese society regarding the continuation of the family's rule. While the Bongo family has enjoyed support from some quarters for maintaining stability and relatively strong economic growth, others view their grip on power as emblematic of a political system that stifles democratic processes and hinders social progress.
Critics argue that dynastic leadership can lead to a concentration of power, lack of transparency and a stifling of political debates.
"In a political context, where you have an authoritarian regime for 50 years, such as the Bongos' regime has been in Gabon, there is no civic space for citizens," Muguzi told VOA's English to Africa Service.
Muguzi said the president, who is under house arrest, has remained in power by making amendments to the country's constitution to extend his power, and that gave little chance for the opposition to fairly compete with the ruling party. This, Muguzi said, is the "kind of recipe for electoral violence, but also for military coups."
Social and economic disparities
The country of 2 million people has stark social and economic inequality. While the capital, Libreville, showcases pockets of affluence, many Gabonese citizens struggle to make ends meet, complaining of a lack of access to quality health care and inadequate education systems. The perception that the ruling elite benefits disproportionately from the nation's wealth while neglecting the needs of the broader population has fueled resentment and unrest.
"Gabon is not a very poor country," said Steven Nabieu Rogers, a public policy and African governance analyst. He added that despite the country's importance to global commodities markets because of its oil and manganese, the people "have clearly not enjoyed the benefits that the country holds, because only one family has had accounts for a century, [half-century] and more than 70% of this population doesn't even know any other president, except this one family."
Oil production accounts for 38% of the country's GDP, making Gabon the fourth-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Bank. Despite its mineral riches, 40% of Gabonese between the ages of 15 and 24 are unemployed.
But Rogers predicts "a little bit of change" in its economic stability because of the coup, especially if the military closes borders and suspends the constitution. That will allow a military junta to govern "in a way that is not constitutional, which is not acceptable, because people have a right to vote for the president that they want," Rogers said in an interview with English to Africa Service's "Africa 54" TV program.
The coup raises concerns about the potential for increased political and economic volatility in the region, with a potential ripple effect beyond Gabon's borders. Gabon joins a string of former French colonies plagued by coups since 2020, following Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and, most recently, Niger.
International reactions to the coup were swift.
Stephane Dujarric, the spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said Guterres called for "all actors involved to exercise restraint, engage in an inclusive and meaningful dialogue, and ensure that the rule of law and human rights are fully respected."
"He also calls on the national army and security forces to guarantee the physical integrity of the president of the republic and his family. The United Nations stands by the people of Gabon," Dujarric said.
Speaking at a virtual press briefing, John Kirby, U.S. National Security Council communications coordinator, said, "We're going to also stay focused on continuing to work with our African partners and all the people on the continent to address challenges and to support democracy."
Kirby said the U.S. would continue to promote "democracy on the continent and around the world, because we think that's the best type of governance to promote peace and prosperity for people."
This story originated in the Africa Division. VOA English to Africa Service's Esther Githui-Ewart and Paul Ndiho; VOA White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara; and VOA U.N. Correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.