Coup in Gabon: the Junta must not perpetuate the suppression of free expression

In this article, Programme Assistant at the MFWA, Melvine Evrard L. Enzeng, from Gabon, shares his reflections about the 30th August coup in his home country.

August 30, 2023, will remain an important date for the people of Gabon, because on this day, the country witnessed for the very first time a coup d’état, after an unsuccessful attempt in 2018.

The current situation in Gabon is uncertain and worrying given the considerable impact it could have on the populace, and more importantly, because it comes on the back of a wave of disruptive coups d’état that have taken place in Africa – more than 5 coups within a space of 3 years.


The Bongo dynasty ruled the people of Gabon for a total of 56 years – for 42 years Omar BONGO, the father, held unto power, and Ali BONGO, the son, continued for 14 years. The administration of the Bongo dynasty over the last 5 decades has been characterised by several incidents of fraudulent elections that have led to post-electoral crises and violence resulting in the loss of human life. The recurring situation of chaos summarizes the source of Gabon’s deteriorating political and economic situation.

The two terms of Ali Bongo, son of the late Omar Bongo, have been marred by economic mismanagement. This management has been widely criticised and has led to the closure of a number of major companies that used to generate employment for the teeming Gabonese. This has considerably increased the unemployment rate in the country.

Corruption has also impinged on the stability of the economy. For instance, there’s an infamous case of a minister who was imprisoned for embezzling nearly 500 billion CFA francs (USD 800 million), representing 25% of Gabon’s GDP.

There’s also the 500 million euros (USD 531 million) loan granted by the AfDB in 2018, which was meant to support the country’s reforms aimed at restoring macroeconomic stability and putting its finances on a sustainable financial footing, following the collapse in oil prices. The results expected have still not been felt.

In 2016, the list of nearly 100 projects announced by Ali Bongo required funds from the government. Although these projects were all financed, only 13 out of the 100 projects were implemented.

The result of the blatant mismanagement and corruption is that a country with a population of just 2.5 million, so rich and promising, whose potential earned it comparison with the popular city of Dubai, has ended up in a state of total economic and political turmoil.

The immediate triggers of the coup

October 25, 2018, Ali Bongo had suffered a stroke and was hospitalized in Saudia Arabia. His health condition which has clearly not improved much since then, and which has kept him out of the presidency for a year, had always raised questions about the effectiveness of his leadership as President. It had cast doubt on his ability to serve a third term.

The population, appalled by the situation in the country, by the poor leadership of President Ali Bongo, and filled with bitter memories of the electoral coup of 2016, went to the polls on August 26, 2023, with a firm resolve to take their political destiny into their own hands.

However, their resolve came up against the old tactics of electoral manipulations. Like previous ones, the 2023 polls were characterized by massive irregularities. For example, the names of deceased persons were still on the electoral roll, ballot papers for certain candidates were either in short supply or absent in several polling stations, and candidates who had withdrawn were still featured.

In spite of these challenges, the Gabonese electorate went ahead to cast their vote ballot in favour of an end to the Bongo era. And they thought they had voted resoundingly to effect change and begin to build a new and prosperous nation. But they were in for another electoral shock!

On the dawn of Wednesday 30 August 2023, the electoral commission of Gabon announced that Ali Bongo had been re-elected with 62% of the vote, as against 42% for his main opponent, Ondo Ossa. Almost all the country heaved one big sigh of disbelief, anger and revulsion.

The military leadership apparently read the pulse of the nation with unerring acuity. So an hour after the electoral coup was announced, the military also announced a coup d’état on Gabon TV. Led by Colonel Ulrich MANFOUMBI MANFOUMBI, a group of soldiers told an overwhelmed nation that Ali Bongo Ondimba had been deposed. The following day, General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema was announced as the new junta leader.

A day later after his overthrow, Ali Bongo Ondimba, under house arrest and in total disarray, sent a video message in which he asked ‘his friends’ to ‘make noise’ about the oppression he was facing. It seemed rather ambiguous that Ali Bongo should now be calling for a ruckus, when he himself had been an oppressor. For several years, he broke constitutional rules and flouted respect for free expression every time the Gabonese people expressed their discontent by “making noise”.

Another paradox: President Ali Bongo ordered the Internet to be shut down to silence the people of Gabon and prevent the world from accessing information about the election. Now that he has become a prisoner, he finds himself obliged to ask that people ‘make noise’ – obviously on the internet – to alert the world as to his fate.

It is all the more ironic that the President who had just crushed the opposition by a large majority should decide to launch, an appeal for help apparently addressed to the English-speaking world outside Gabon, and not to the Gabonese electorate whose sovereign will, as allegedly expressed at the ballot, had been stolen.

Curiously, the military, who justified their seizure of power by referring to electoral fraud and the usurpation of the people’s democratic rights, did not deem it appropriate to return power to the presumed winner. The military intervention, therefore, appears to be just another usurpation that could only be justified by a complete overhaul of the political machinery of the Bongo era, which was forged at the whim of a voracious and clannish appetite.

The state of freedom of expression under the Bongo regime

For several years, the Bongo regime has been repressive against the Gabonese press, which has always applied a posture of ‘praise singing or silence.’ Journalists and media houses that do not subscribe to this line of reporting often suffer reprisals from the Gabonese government when they publish critical articles. In that sense, the withdrawal of an article published by the newspaper Moutouki that highlighted alleged accusations of corruption and illicit enrichment against Noureddin Bongo Valentin, son of Ali Bongo, can be cited.

Also, during the time of Ali Bongo’s long absence due to health issues, the newspaper l’Aube was suspended for publishing an article in which the editor questioned the failure of the Supreme Court to declare a vacancy of power in line with Article of the Gabonese Constitution.

In addition, there are cases of members of the opposition, activists, and other civil society figures who suffered reprisals from the Gabonese government for their critical remarks. Between 2016 and 2022, more than 20 opposition leaders and civil society actors were arbitrarily imprisoned for criticising the government.

These have considerably affected the state of freedom of expression in Gabon, which in 2022 was ranked 115th in the world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders.

Way Forward

Although the Bongo government was widely known for being repressive and intolerant of the media and dissenting voices, its successor military regime does not inspire hope either.

In West Africa, where a number of countries have experienced coups in recent years, the impact of such military interventions has been dire, especially in respect of the right to free expression.

Juntas in West Africa have repeatedly cracked down on journalists. The media have been affected by suspensions, imprisonment, shutdowns, threats, intimidation, and internet blackouts, which are inimical to freedom of expression rights. In the face of siege, 80 media owners, editors and press freedom organizations, including the MFWA recently signed a statement calling on the authorities in Niger and in other junta-led countries to take steps to end the repression and improve freedom of expression conditions in their various countries.

Against the backdrop of the negative impact of coups d’état, one can only hope, rather than expect, any marked improvement in the short term. In view of this, it is recommended that international press freedom organisations offer massive support to the Gabonese media and local human rights organisations in a concerted engagement with the authorities on the need to uphold press freedom.

Given the objectives of the Comité de Transition et de la Restauration des Institutions in Gabon, which are, as the name suggests, to ensure the transition, and to make the institutions as strong as possible, it is imperative that the transitional government makes it a priority to leave a legacy of strong democratic foundations. In particular, the authorities must:

  • Uphold the fundamental human rights of Gabonese citizens, including the right to freedom of expression, including through public marches and protests. This is crucial because the exercise of free expression and of opinions, including dissenting views, helps government to appreciate the needs and concerns of the people.
  • Show greater tolerance towards critical journalism and divergent opinions, which often help keep officialdom in check for the greater good of the country.
  • Cooperate and dialogue with all stakeholders to build a national consensus on the best way to create the desired conditions for the highly endowed country to achieve its full economic potential.
  • Create conditions for all to contribute to a peaceful, inclusive and secure transitional process.

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