by Giorgio Cafiero
Gabon, an oil-rich Central African state located along the equator, is not typically on the international media’s radar. The relative stability that has generally shaped Gabonese politics for decades largely explains the country’s low profile in the global press. Throughout 2019, however, the former French colony and OPEC member has experienced internal trouble that could make Gabon one of Africa’s new flashpoints of instability.
Questions surrounding President Ali Bongo’s legitimacy and the state of his health have stirred up tensions in Gabon. In October, Bongo suffered a stroke while in Saudi Arabia and was transferred to Rabat, Morocco the following month. As last year ended, with rumors that he had died, Bongo made a televised New Year’s address from Morocco in order to assure Gabon’s citizens that he was in good health. But his speech was slurred, and his right arm seemed unable to move.
On January 14, Bongo returned home to a country that had just experienced a major political crisis. One week before the wheelchair-bound leader returned to Gabon, a failed military coup plot shook Libreville. Despite the coup failing and the president’s return, footage of Bongo this month has shown him with a fixed facial expression and a motionless arm, fueling further uncertainty about his health, and, by extension, Gabon’s future.
Opposition to the Bongo Family
The Bongo family has ruled Gabon since 1967, often with iron-fisted tactics such as relying on state security forces to terrorize political opponents. Human rights organizations have documented how the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party maintains a monopoly on the country’s executive branch while the opposition’s presence in the National Assembly remains too insignificant to influence politics. With tight control over the national economy, the Bongo family has become extremely wealthy and has used its resources to maintain networks of political patronage.
As one of Central Africa’s richest families, the Bongos have been at the center of international controversy. From 2010 to 2017, French authorities investigated the family’s substantial assets in France, including 33 properties, most of which were in expensive Parisian districts. As a result, the French state ordered the seizure of SCI Emeraude, a property company, and looked into potential connections between Bongo and Achimmob, a Swiss company. The investigation ended without enough evidence to charge members of the family with any crimes under French law.
Despite the wealth of Gabon’s ruling family, male life expectancy in Gabon is only 62 years while youth unemployment is 35 percent. Furthermore, one-third of the Gabonese population lives below the poverty line. During the presidency of Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo, who ruled from 1967 to 2009, resentment grew among many citizens who saw their government as guilty of corruption and squandering the country’s wealth. Omar, who at the time of his death was one of the world’s longest serving leaders, remained close to France via the Françafrique system, a “cozy and often incestuous relationship between France and its former colonies in Africa.”
Since Omar’s death a decade ago, his son has sought to distinguish his presidency from his father’s, for instance by decreasing the country’s reliance on the oil sector. Yet, Bongo’s presidency has faced major challenges since the last presidential vote in 2016. That year’s election received international criticism for its irregularities and fraud. Bongo secured another seven-year term by defeating his opponent Jean Ping by 49.8 to 48.23 percent with the results from the president’s home province of Haut-Ogooué almost certainly rigged. The electoral commission claimed that voter turnout was 99.93 percent in Haut-Ogooué (compared to 59 percent nationwide) and that Bongo won 95 percent of the votes cast.
Following this controversial election, deadly violence plagued different parts of Gabon. The opposition blamed the Republican Guard, which closely serves the president, of targeting its headquarters in a bomb attack. Protestors reportedly set the country’s parliament building ablaze. In the aftermath of the disputed election, Amnesty International accused the Gabonese government of waging a “brutal response” with “excessive force” that violated “protesters’ rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”
Against the backdrop of such political tensions, the country’s finances have suffered from the fall in oil output and prices, fueling greater unrest across Gabon. Oil workers’ strikes have become more frequent. Economic growth only reached two percent in 2018, compared to seven percent in 2011.
Enter Ondo Obiang
On January 7, gun shots rang out around the capital of Libreville as Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang led several putschists in a military coup attempt. Identifying himself as deputy commander of the Republican Guard, Ondo Obiang and the other coupists briefly took control of the state-owned Gabonese National Radio to issue a post-coup statement. Ondo Obiang declared that the coup was justified, pointing to Bongo’s health and the “high military hierarchy” failing to protect “the best interest of the nation.”
The coup ultimately failed hours later at the hands of state security, which decisively killed and arrested those involved, and also temporarily shut down the Internet. Soon after the government had retaken full control of the country, Gabonese officials became deeply concerned about how the attempted military takeover would play out. Fearing the possibility that instability would hit Gabon, officials in Libreville quickly closed the border with Cameroon despite Gabon depending on that border for food imports.
On the political front, Bongo shored up domestic support for his presidency by naming Julien Nkoghe Bekale as the country’s new prime minister on January 12. Two days later, Bongo returned to Gabon. The government clearly expects that the president’s return will bring an end to political turbulence and to fears of an emerging power vacuum. Not clear, however, is whether Bongo’s return will suffice to cool tensions that built up during his months of absence, or whether he will need to return to Rabat for more treatment.
Should more challenges to Bongo come later this year, Gabon’s president may look to France, which maintains a large military base in Libreville with 1,600 marines. Or he might appeal for support from the United States, which sent 80 troops to Gabon several days before the coup amid concerns about violence resulting from the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s latest election. But given that both Paris and Washington criticized Gabon’s election procedures in 2016, such support might not be forthcoming.
This is where the deepening China-Gabon partnership comes into play. Throughout the first decade of this century, China made important inroads into Gabon. Largely drawn to the African country for its oil, plus other natural resources such as timber, iron ore, and manganese, Beijing signed two major deals with Libreville. One guaranteed China a minimum supply of Gabonese crude oil, while the other was for oil exploration between a Sinopec subsidiary and Total Gabon.
The West mainly sees Beijing as exploiting African states such as Gabon through bribery, debt traps, and opaque contracts in order to advance “Chinese global dominance.” African countries often have a different perspective: that China is a “trustworthy ally” that has never pursued colonial aims on the continent.
In contrast to Western states that criticized Bongo’s 2016 re-election, China is investing in Gabon with no political strings attached, which an autocratic government guilty of grave human rights abuses such as Bongo’s naturally welcomes. Nonetheless, China’s presence in Gabon throughout this century has not been free of its own difficulties, highlighted by the Addax affair and the Bélinga fiasco. Yet the keenness of Gabon’s government to prevent either episode from sparking major problems in Sino-Gabonese relations points to the extent to which Libreville sees China as important to Gabon’s future.
In 2019, Gabon’s government may have to make difficult foreign policy decisions in the wake of growing signs of internal instability. If Bongo’s presidency faces further opposition from the public, Libreville might need to turn to external allies and partners for its own protection. The longstanding argument that Gabon could never substitute France with China as a top “special” ally may come under greater scrutiny should Paris abandon Bongo. Such a scenario may also prompt Gabon to consider moving closer to the Trump administration if France chooses to stop backing the Gabonese president.
Most African countries face similar challenges when it comes to Sino-Western geopolitical competition. Beijing is always keen to find ways to capitalize on friction between African governments and their traditional Western allies, ultimately with the aim of bringing the African continent closer to China’s sphere of geo-economic influence. Looking ahead, Gabon may well become a more serious flashpoint in Beijing’s rivalry with Western capitals for influence in Africa.