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That failed coup in Gabon

News coming out of Gabon early in the morning last Monday that soldiers had made an attempt to overthrow the regime of President Ali Bongo sent shock waves across Africa and were a reminder of our sordid past with military dictatorships. While liberal democracy is still fragile in most African countries, the belief is that military coups are a thing of the past and that all attention is now concentrated on deepening democracy across the continent.

How wrong we were. A group of Gabonese soldiers stormed the national radio station and broadcast an appeal for a popular uprising against ailing President Ali Bongo, who is abroad recovering from a stroke. The rebels, initially said to be six in number, burst into the state radio station, “neutralising” gendarmes in front of the building before making their broadcast. The message was read by a person who identified himself as Lieutenant Ondo Obiang Kelly, the deputy commander of the Republican Guard and head of a previously unknown group, the Patriotic Youth Movement of the Gabonese Defence and Security Forces. The rebel leader said a “national restoration council” would be formed in the country in order “to guarantee a democratic transition for the Gabonese people.”

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Gabonese officials later said five rebels had entered the building and four of them had been arrested. After a brief period of confusion, security forces stormed the radio station in the capital, Libreville to take it back. They killed two rebel commandos at the station and then arrested their leader. They also freed journalists who had been forced to help the rebels make their appeal. “The situation is under control,” the Gabonese presidency said in a statement.

President Ali Bongo himself was out of the country during last Monday’s attempted take-over of power. He is said to be staying at a private residence in the Moroccan capital, Rabat after suffering a stroke. Even though he made a televised speech on New Year’s Eve, he had not set foot in Gabon since October last year, when he fell ill.

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The rebels’ frustration is partly understandable because Ali Bongo Ondimba, who is 59, is a classic African dictator and scion of a dynasty rolled into one. He was  born Alain Bernard Bongo and has been President of Gabon since 2009 and is also President of the Gabonese Democratic Party, but that is not the most important part of it.  His father, Omar Bongo was dictator of Gabon from 1967 until his death in 2009. His 41-year rule was one of the longest in the world but his country hardly benefitted from it despite its ample natural riches.

Ali Bongo too has been in power far longer than his nine years as president indicate. During his father’s presidency, he was Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1989 to 1991 and represented Bongoville as a Deputy in the National Assembly from 1991 to 1999. Subsequently he was Minister of Defense from 1999 to 2009. Following his father’s death, Ali Bongo was first elected in the August 2009 presidential election. He was re-elected in August 2016, in elections marred by numerous irregularities, arrests, human rights violations and post-election violence.

Unappetizing though the record of the Bongos is in Gabon, we believe that military adventurism by young officers is not the answer to it. Such adventurism could very likely make matters worse and could reverse even the little gains that the country has made in liberal democratic practice. Besides, it sends the wrong message across the African continent which, since the 1990s, has made much progress towards the consolidation of democracy in most African countries.

We urge President Ali Bongo to learn the right lessons from this sad episode. Rather than respond to it with further repressive measures, he should make amends to his autocratic and profligate ways and work hard to entrench democracy in his country. If that happens, then Gabon would be the better off after last Monday’s sad episode.

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