Johannesburg – As a military coup attempt was underway in Gabon on Monday, President Ali Bongo Ondimba, currently recuperating from a stroke in a Moroccan hospital, was witnessing history repeat itself.
His father Omar Bongo Ondimba also witnessed Gabon’s only other military coup in 1964 when officers overthrew the government of the country’s first post-colonial leader, President Léon M'ba.
While the earlier coup had a relatively positive outcome for Ondimba senior his son can’t be certain of the same result. And as the dramatic events unfolded on Monday, eerily mirroring the country’s first military coup, it remains to be seen if the current coup attempt will be as peaceful, relatively speaking, as the earlier one and how ordinary Gabonese citizens will react.
Early Monday morning a number of military officers seized control of state radio and declared their dissatisfaction with the president.
Reports said it remained unclear if the military officers were backed by a larger force, but the military released a broadcast statement on Monday morning declaring their intention to form a "National Restoration Council" after expressing their disappointment in Ondimba and doubts over his ability to carry out his responsibilities in office following a New Year’s address the president gave.
One soldier who identified himself as Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang, according to BNO news site, urged fellow military personnel and citizens to arm themselves and occupy military bases, airports, and border crossings.
The military statement was released after the soldiers stormed the national radio headquarters in the capital Libreville as the sound of gunfire echoed in the vicinity. Tanks and armoured vehicles could also be seen on the streets as news of the attempted coup hit headlines regionally and abroad.
Ondimba’s family has ruled the oil-rich country for over half a century. The current president assumed office in October 2009.
The incumbent president’s father Omar Bongo Ondimba was the dictatorial president of Gabon for 42 years from 1967 until his death in 2009. He was chief of staff and was imprisoned in a military camp during the first military coup in 1964.
Prior to the February 1964 coup, which overthrew M’ba, Gabon was seen as one of the most politically stable countries in Africa. At the time the country had a high average annual income and was one of the few countries in Africa with a positive trade balance, with exports exceeding imports by 30 percent. A former French colony, Paris remained heavily involved in the country’s affairs following independence.
Gabon’s first military coup was fairly peaceful with relatively few casualties and again state radio was used by the military to calm the populace.
Approximately 150 coup plotters arrested M’ba, and a number of his government officials and a provisional government was subsequently formed. There was no major uprising or reaction by the Gabonese people when they received word of the coup, which the military interpreted as a sign of approval.
The coup plotters then, echoing the dissatisfaction of the current coup plotters, complained of Ondimba working for himself, his family and local elites and not for Gabon and its people.
Gabon's government is a centralised, autocratic presidential bureaucracy where power is distributed largely through patronage, says Amnesty International. When no parliamentary assembly is in session, the president has the power to veto legislation that has been passed. He can dissolve the national assembly, call a new election, or govern by presidential decree.
The 2016 presidential elections were slammed as rigged and heavily criticised by the African Union
In the earlier coup, the M’ba government was reinstalled with the help of French paratroopers, honouring a 1960 treaty between France and Gabon.
Reports emerging Monday afternoon stated the government had regained control of the situation and arrested a number of soldiers involved in the coup while one was on the run.