Heart of Arts

Gabon: Crooks in Power

Toyin Falola


Gabon demonstrates everything that is wrong with Africa, a tiny country with enormous resources stolen by a few kleptocrats. One family in over fifty years converted Gabon into a private estate—even the coup brings to power the cousin of the deposed president to prevent opposition from taking over power. Gabon is a curse, country that manufactures sadness.

Anyone familiar with political developments in Africa from the second half of the twentieth century would naturally surmise that history is repeating itself on the continent. Since 2020, there have been eight military coups in Africa, with two occurring in 2023 alone. Unfortunately, these military interventions in “democratically” elected governments are not an unusual development on the continent. Until the 1990s, when many African countries were returned to civilian rule—prompting the celebration of a new era of democracy and regular elections—the continent was an active theatre of coups. Between 1950 and 1991, Africa recorded 84 successful coups spread around 45 countries. And even after 1991, coups remained a celebrated august visitor, dotting the African political landscape every now and again. Now, with recent developments, we are compelled to ask ourselves, ‘‘Has Africa really made tangible political gains since independence?’’

As some might assume, the reappearance of a succession of coups on the African political scene is neither the work of providence nor the dying out of an old era of sit-tight regimes. It is a clear testament that the conditions—of greed and selfishness—in Africa’s corridors of power, which had made the continent a fertile ground for military takeovers, have persisted. In other words, the majority of Africa’s leaders have either maintained or attempted to adopt the old political manual designed to perpetuate “leaders” in power who steal and stash away the wealth of their countries in foreign lands while condemning the majority of their people to a life of poverty and disregard. The process remains with the same method, where individuals elected into political office, upon assumption of power, abandon the manifesto on which they campaigned and were elected and instead turn around to use state resources to sponsor their quest to become life-long rulers. To achieve this crooked feat, they deploy a myriad of techniques based on particular situational requirements, including constitutional manipulations to extend tenurial limits, intimidation of opposition, election fraud, annexation of the judiciary, weaponization of poverty, exploitation of diversity and the award of destructive economic concessions to erstwhile colonial overlords. The system of corruption and intimidation thus endures until elements from within the inner government caucus, including top-ranking military officials, become dissatisfied with their share of the loot and, under the guise of ending the suffering of the masses, support radical elements to topple the system. After all, what honour is there amongst thieves?

The ecstatic and widespread celebrations that greeted the announcement of the ousting of the Gabonese government by the coup plotter on the 30th of August, 2023, signals that the overthrow of the Bongo dynasty was a welcomed development, even at the backdrop of condemnations which have poured in from the UN (United Nations) and other intergovernmental bodies, as well as from many leaders within Africa and without (led by France).

The people of Gabon—which has been under the yoke of the Bongo family for 56 years—have suffered tremendously under the boots of one of Africa’s longest-serving dictatorships. An oil-rich nation of about 2.3 million people, Gabon boasts a per capita income more than the average of most sub-Saharan African nations, with a figure approaching more than four times. However, operating an undeveloped extractive industry, Gabon’s wealth has had little impact on the 40 per cent of its population living under the poverty threshold, especially with most of the country’s extractive activities being carried out by companies domiciled in France—its erstwhile colonial overlord.

The founding champion of Gabon’s kleptocracy, the now deceased patriarch of the corrupt Bongo family, Omar Bongo, ruled Gabon like his personal fiefdom for forty-two years and in the full glare of all the institutions and countries that today claim the status of ‘‘champions of democracy.’’ Knowing that he had to present the guise of credible elections, Omar Bongo deployed every trick in the book to circumvent the system and perpetuate himself in power. Elected to office in March 1967 as the vice-presidential candidate to president Leon M’Ba, Omar Bongo became president after his principal’s demise later in the same year. Benefiting from a constitutional amendment that allowed vice presidents to succeed the president in the case of the former’s demise—an amendment which incidentally was carried out a few months before his principal’s demise—Omar Bongo declared Gabon a one-party state to consolidate his power. After that, the country had to wait thirty years to experience another multi-party election. Having spent thirty years in power as a dictator, Omar Bongo, now an even greater force to reckon with, allowed for multi-party elections in 1991, 1998, and 2005. In all of these elections, he and his party, the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), won the majority, even against the backdrop of allegations of electoral fraud from his opponents. To crown his life-long efforts as president of Gabon, Omar Bongo died in a Spanish hospital in 2009. But not before ensuring his son, Ali Bongo, whose political career had enjoyed a meteoric rise under his father’s despotic guidance, was poised to succeed him.

Before his current ordeal, Gabon’s one-time funk singer and the embattled president had proven himself a good student of his father’s political manoeuvres. Since winning the August 2009 presidential elections, Ali Bongo managed to secure a controversial victory in 2016 and survived a coup attempt in January 2019. In an interview with Prof Wale Adebanwi, held at the University of Oxford Business School in 2018, which provides a rare view into Ali Bongo’s rationalization of his family’s tyrannical leadership, the now embattled president of Gabon, in responding to a question on regime change as a core tenet of the institution of democracy, decried the limits imposed on presidential terms. According to him, two five-year tenures are simply insufficient for any president to effectively deliver his/her programs. However, he failed to explain how many years it would ideally take to determine whether or not a president is committed or even competent enough to deliver on the development needs of his country’s people. But, if we follow his family’s example, the Gabonese people might just have to wait for an entire century, especially since his father (Bongo senior) could not do it in forty-two years, and neither has he in fourteen.

What the Bongos and their cohorts have been able to achieve in their ‘limited” time in government, however, is a luxurious and flamboyant lifestyle, both for themselves and members of their extended family. Over the years, both members of Omar Bongo’s immediate family and other key figures in his government have come under investigation in the United States (US) and France for misappropriating the country’s wealth. According to a report by The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), the late Omar Bongo attempted to purchase a condo in New York City worth $2.2million through his daughter Yamilee Bongo-Astier, an unemployed graduate, who was found in possession of $1 million in cash, stashed away in a safety deposit box. Several other allegations of corruption involving the Bongos and their inner circle—including court judges and top military figures—have described the illicit purchase of luxury cars as bribes, as well as the ownership of numerous foreign bank accounts and pricey real estate in the choicest areas in France and the US.

Even if the celebrations that followed the news of the removal of the Bongo political dynasty are as organic as other long-suffering people share in Africa, it would be ignorant to believe that the problems of that small oil-producing country have ended. At the risk of sounding like a prophet of gloom, the announcement of Brice Nguema as ‘‘president of the transition’’ buttresses an earlier point made on the origins and organization of coups in Africa. Not only is Brice Nguema alleged to be the cousin of the ousted president, but he has also been an integral part of the “Bongo System,” serving in different capacities, including as aide de camp to late Omar Bongo and as Leader of the Gabonese Republican guard. His name has also not been left out of the list of names of influential government officials—published by the OCCRP—who have enriched themselves at the expense of the Gabonese people, particularly the allegations of the ownership of real estate properties worth millions of dollars in the US. If, from all indications, what transpired in Gabon was a family tussle for power, then the people of Gabon must brace up for another round of agitation for their rights to representative government. A counter-coup may be needed to jump-start a fraudulent system.

Whatever happens next in Gabon, the latest coup in that small central African county has sent shock-waves reverberating through many of Africa’s halls of power. In Rwanda and Cameroon, the presidents have embarked on major reshuffling and retirements in the military, even as others appear content in using ECOWAS to discourage other would-be coup plotters. While the approach of ECOWAS has, thus far, been the subject of controversy, it is yet to be seen if the direction of both Rwanda and Cameroon would be enough to successfully stem the rise in the tide of coups. What is, however, indisputable is that as long as the will of the people of Africa remains suppressed, in whatever guise or form, there will always be opportunities for potential coup plotters to exploit. Hence, the possibility for a stable and prosperous political future for Africa must involve the pursuit of the interests of its people.

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