Gabon is in the midst of significant changes, the likes of which the country has not seen in decades. Now, the Central African country is working to reorganize itself into the democracy its people have wanted for decades.
After an Aug. 26 election that saw President Ali Bongo Ondimba reelected, he was overthrown just four days later in a coup led by General Brice Oligui Nguema, Bongo’s own cousin. Bongo, whose family had ruled the country for 56 years, was put on house arrest once the coup began after being declared the winner of this year’s election.
President Bongo took office in 2009 following the passing of his father, Omar Bongo, who had ruled the country since 1967. Under the Bongo family rule, Gabon became wealthy through its oil, with export revenue reaching $6 billion in 2022. However, like his father’s rule before him, Ali Bongo’s 14-year presidency was riddled with corruption in areas ranging from elections to finances. Bongo’s administration successfully fended off a coup in 2019 when the coup leaders claimed Bongo was incapable of ruling after suffering a stroke the year prior. Election fraud allegations during his 2016 campaign also played a role in the coup attempt.
Since the successful coup in August, Gabon’s new leaders have pledged to give the country back to the people. New prime minister Raymond Ndong Sima presented a rough timeline for creating a “national dialogue” that would take place between April and June of next year, noting the serious manner in which the government must act during this period.
“Why do we have a limited time to do this? Because we can’t go on forever in a transition situation with a military command,” Sima said. “We are a civil society. We belong to institutional bodies and we must respect the clauses of these bodies.”
Coup leader General Nguema, now the interim president, has demonstrated that he is dedicated to prioritizing Gabon’s recovery by turning down the traditional presidential salary in an effort to distance the new government from the crimes of the Bongo family. He also plans to hold elections following this “transitional period,” but no timeline is yet set for these to occur.
Gabon’s reform plans include intentions to hold the previous administration accountable for their actions. Bongo’s wife and former first lady, Sylvia Bongo Valentin, was arrested for money laundering, falsification of records, and forgery after she was placed on house arrest at the coup’s onset. Valentin joins a list of other Bongo cabinet members being charged with crimes, including their eldest son, Noureddin Bongo Valentin. Bongo himself is also currently under house arrest.
Despite the efforts at reform, Gabon is still struggling to gain support from major global powers. Immediately after the coup, Gabon’s membership in the African Union was suspended. In response to international pushback, Prime Minister Sima stood before the UN General Assembly last month and cited the country’s 2016 election, which was marred with corruption, as the justification for the actions taken during the 2023 election.
As the push for reform continues, a new obstacle stands in the way via the United States. Last month, the State Department officially declared the events in Gabon to be a coup, thus suspending “most U.S. assistance” to the country. The declaration does note that “humanitarian, health, and education assistance will continue to benefit the people of Gabon” and will restart other aid “alongside concrete actions by the transitional government toward establishing democratic rule.” This adds to the suspension of “most non-humanitarian aid” to Gabon that began on September 26, according to a statement made by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
Lack of aid could prove fatal to Gabon as it begins a new chapter. The U.S.’s suspension not only reduces funds coming into the country, but its strong influence on global politics could further worsen the situation. Gabon’s African Union suspension is still in place and other global powers like France have already condemned the coup and denied aid. However, there is reason to believe that Gabon can overcome these setbacks given its own global influence, as the country remains both a critical oil exporter and a member of OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries).
Gabon’s new leaders have made it clear their intentions to transform the country into a democratic state, and the United States supports this. However, the current levels of support from global powers isolates Gabon more than it was under the Bongo regime. Thus, the country is faced with a dichotomy: in order to regain support from pre-coup allies, it must make an unknown amount of democratic progress without that same support. Gabon has the resources to get it back in good graces with other powers, but the lack of aid will likely force the new government to tightrope walk to democracy.