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Gabon: “That the Republican Guard is Part of the Putsch is Very Bad News for the Bongo Government”

Putschist soldiers announced on August 30, 2023 that they had “put  an end to the regime in place  ” in Gabon and had placed President Ali Bongo Ondimba, whose re-election after 14 years in power had just been announced, under house arrest. Florence Bernault, professor and researcher at the Sciences Po History Center, historian and specialist in Central Africa, deciphers on Nicolas’ microphone On the context of this coup d’état and the weight of the army in the country. Interview.

RFI  : The Gabonese army which bursts into the political game and announces taking power, is this a surprise for you?

Florence Bernault  : Yes, I think like many observers of Gabon. I was doing research there from February to May 2023. Obviously, everyone was talking about the elections. But it is true that we were thinking of a rather post-2016 scenario: that is to say possibly popular uprisings after the obvious election of Ali Bongo. But we hadn’t thought about the army. And the army is a bit like the great mute. So, yes, we are quite surprised, the Gabonese perhaps too.

Until now, during previous episodes of tension that Gabon had experienced – the post-electoral crisis of 2016, but also the attempted coup d’état of 2019 – the army had always allowed the presidential camp to re-establish the situation. Why does this seem to have changed today?

When we heard the news of the army coup this morning, everyone was wondering if the Republican Guard was part of it. The Republican Guard is really the elite corps which is very important. There are several hundred, if not thousands, of men. It is a guard which was created in 1964 after a coup d’état, an attempted coup d’état against Léon Mba, at the time. And you should know that it is truly an elite body which is dedicated to protecting the Presidency of the Republic. If you go to Libreville, the Republican Guard camp is right next to the presidential palace. And if you look at the accounts and the budget of the Gabonese nation, the Republican Guard has a huge share of the Defense budget. She also has a separate budget. So, it was clear that if it was the regular army that carried out the putsch, there might have been clashes with the Republican Guard. However, there, it was confirmed with the rise of General Brice Oligui Nguema that the Republican Guard was part of the putsch. And this is very bad news for the Bongo government. Because, indeed, they have very significant power in Gabon.

What do we know so far about the links that united this Republican Guard and the Bongo family? Until now, this Republican Guard had been, if we understand you correctly, in a way the guardian of the temple.

Yes. Absolutely. In any case, the Republican Guard – for the army, it is more difficult to know – had always been led until 2019 by a member of the direct Bongo family. And finally, General Brice Oligui Nguema was appointed in 2020, I believe, at the head of this Republican Guard, somewhat exceptionally since he is not part of the Bongo family.

It must be understood that the army is important in Gabon and above all Ali Bongo himself was trained as an officer. There is a parallel between him and Brice Oligui: they were both trained in Morocco. Oligui was the new general who seemed to be coming into the spotlight a little. He was camp chief for Ali Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo. And we know that, when Ali Bongo was elected, there were conflicts between him and General Oligui. So, he was appointed to various diplomatic posts for a little while starting in 2009. Then, he was called back to Gabon after Ali Bongo’s stroke in 2019. And there he was placed to this position of responsibility. This is what we know. That said, once again, without knowing the army and its various components well, it is difficult to know more.

This video capture taken by Gabon 24 on August 30, 2023 shows Gabonese soldiers carrying General Brice Oligui Nguema (center), head of President Ali Bongo Ondimba's presidential guard.
This video capture taken by Gabon 24 on August 30, 2023 shows Gabonese soldiers carrying General Brice Oligui Nguema (center), head of President Ali Bongo Ondimba’s presidential guard. AFP – –

Even if the situation in Gabon is radically different from that of Niger, Guinea, Mali or Burkina Faso, were the soldiers who intervened this morning inspired by the series of putsches that have shaken Africa in recent months? from West ?

In fact, it is a big concern of the French media to correlate this with the putsches in West Africa. I think this is not a mistake, but it prevents us from seeing the dynamics and the forces that are behind this putsch. It’s a completely different context and what we need to see – and I think we don’t talk about it enough – is the truly dictatorial climate that was established at the time of the elections. The Bongo government – ​​it should still be remembered because this has been said very little in the French media – from August 26 put the country completely under lockdown. He took him hostage: there was no more internet, there was no more telephone… The borders were closed. There was a curfew. So, the Gabonese were completely isolated,

So, we will have to ask the soldiers if they were inspired by the putsches. But we weren’t expecting them. On the other hand, what we expected was that the kind of terror reigned by the Bongo government would prevent the opposition from showing up. That was the goal. So we thought that people wouldn’t dare take to the streets, etc. So, what you see as joy today is that finally the army, which is quite close to the Gabonese – it’s a small country, so there are a lot of people who have officers in their family, ordinary soldiers – it was a bit of a thunderbolt in a blue sky, and perhaps the actor that we were not expecting but who somewhat frees the Gabonese from this incredible suffocation which had really reached an extreme with the way in which the elections took place. We must also remember that the result of the elections was given on the sly at 4 a.m. last night… We cannot imagine a country like that having elections in these conditions.

Source : rfi