Gabon coup attempt

09 January 2019

On 7 January 2019, five soldiers forced entry into Gabon’s national radio station at 4.30am, launching a coup attempt against President Ali Bongo. The group announced the formation of a ‘national restoration council’ to implement a democratic transition. A lieutenant reading the message claimed to be the deputy commander of the Republican Guard, and called upon the military and public to support the coup, by taking control of transport systems and ammunition reserves. Tanks were seen on the street, although no significant violence was reported. A number of hours after the announcement, the Gabonese government indicated that four of the individuals had been arrested, while the fifth soldier was subsequently detained. Additional reports suggested that two suspected plotters had been killed.

Context

The coup attempt comes amid uncertainty over the state of President Ali Bongo’s health. Bongo suffered a stroke while in Saudi Arabia on 24 October 2018, and has since been out of the country convalescing in Morocco. Following his stroke, speculation mounted that Bongo was either incapacitated or dead, until a New Year’s message, recorded in Rabat, was broadcasted. The president’s ill health renewed focus on the potential for political instability in Gabon, as the country has effectively been left without a head of state for a number of months. However, the government has been relatively successful in maintaining authority. Prime Minister Emmanuel Issoze-Ngondet, presidential chief of staff Brice Alihanga, and security and intelligence chief Colonel Frederic Bongo have all taken leading roles in governing the country. The government has successfully restricted information about the state of the president’s health, with the likely intention of either allowing Bongo a lengthy period of convalescence or managing an orderly transition of power. The ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) is politically dominant, and would be likely to maintain power even if Bongo were unable to continue in his position. In this context, the coup attempt was largely unexpected, given the close relationship between the army and the ruling family, the dominance of the PDG and lack of unity among the opposition.

Outlook

The risk posed by the attempted coup appears to have dissipated. Over the course of 7 January 2019, it became increasingly clear that the attempt was the action of junior officers with limited ability to spur a popular uprising. The incident has instead underscored the loyalty of Gabon’s military to Bongo, particularly as his half-brother Frederic Bongo retains control of the armed forces. The armed forces have previously played a central role in defending the Bongo family’s political dominance and were deployed in August 2016 to suppress post-election protests throughout the country, utilising batons and tear gas. As a result, despite uncertainty over Bongo’s health, the likelihood of a successful coup by the military is limited.

The soldiers who launched the coup attempt criticised the killing of civilians in protests following the 2016 presidential election, reflecting widespread sentiment in the country. However, the soldiers’ calls for a popular uprising were not heeded, indicating the declining risk of anti-government and opposition protests. The Gabonese population has become increasingly disengaged from politics since 2016, as the opposition is weak and the security forces have effectively deployed violence to breakup protests in their early stages. As a result, while popular dissatisfaction with Bongo’s rule is significant, the risk of widespread political protests in Gabon is moderate in 2019.

However, government austerity measures that were announced in June 2018 may spur protests by public sector workers. The measures aimed to cut salaries and freeze recruitment in the civil service, leading to vocal opposition from unions. The civil service employs an estimated 70,000 people, and large protests cannot be ruled out in 2019. These would likely occur in Libreville, and would bring an associated risk of property damage and violence, as the police would be expected to respond with tear gas and water cannons.

For further information, please contact Eleanor Smith, Senior Political Risk Analyst on +44 (0)121 626 7837 or email eleanor_smith@jltgroup.com.

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