Dakar, Senegal — In Gabon, mutinous soldiers said on Wednesday they were taking power to overturn the results of a presidential election, seeking to remove a president whose family has been in power for 55 years, and crowds took to the streets to celebrate .
The coup attempt came hours after the Central African country’s president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, 64, was declared the winner of an election marred by fears of violence.
A few minutes after this announcement, gunshots were heard in the center of the capital, Libreville. Later, a dozen uniformed soldiers appeared on state television and announced that they had seized power.
City crowds took to the city streets to celebrate the end of Bongo’s rule, singing the national anthem along with the soldiers.
“Thank you, army. Finally, we have been waiting for this moment for a long time,” said Yollande Okomo, standing in front of soldiers from the Gabonese elite Republican Guard.
Shopkeeper Viviane Mbou offered juice to the soldiers, which they refused.
“Long live our army,” said Jordy Dikaba, a young man walking with his friends down a street lined with armored police.
There has been no news from the president and his exact whereabouts are unclear.
The military intended “to dissolve all the institutions of the republic”, said a spokesperson for the group, whose members were drawn from the gendarmerie, the Republican Guard and other elements of the security forces.
French mining company Eramet has announced that it is ceasing all operations in Gabon and has started procedures to ensure the safety of its personnel and facilities. The company’s subsidiaries in Gabon operate the world’s largest manganese mine and a rail transport company.
Private intelligence firm Ambrey said all operations in the country’s main port, Libreville, had been halted as authorities refused to allow ships to leave the country.
An early flight at Léon-Mba International Airport in Libreville had already been delayed early Wednesday morning. A man who answered a number listed for the airport told The Associated Press that the flights were canceled on Wednesday.
The coup attempt came about a month after mutinous soldiers in Niger seized power from the democratically elected government, and is the latest in a series of coups that have challenged governments with ties with France, the former colonizer of the region. If successful, the Gabon coup would bring to eight the number of coups in West and Central Africa since 2020.
In his annual Independence Day address on August 17, Bongo said: “As our continent has been rocked in recent weeks by violent crises, rest assured that I will never allow you and our country, Gabon , be hostage to attempts at destabilization. Never.”
Unlike Niger and two other West African countries ruled by military juntas, Gabon has not been ravaged by jihadist violence and has been considered relatively stable. But nearly 40% of Gabonese between the ages of 15 and 24 were unemployed in 2020, according to the World Bank.
Bongo acknowledged widespread frustration over the rising cost of living in his Aug. 17 speech and listed steps his government was taking to contain fuel prices, make education more affordable and stabilize the price of baguettes.
Gabon is a member of the OPEC oil cartel, producing some 181,000 barrels of crude per day, making it the eighth largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa. It is home to over 2 million people and is slightly smaller than the US state of Colorado.
At a time when anti-French sentiment is spreading in many former colonies, French-educated Bongo met President Emmanuel Macron in Paris in late June and shared photos of them shaking hands.
France has 400 soldiers in Gabon conducting a regional military training operation. They did not change their normal operations today, according to the French military.
French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said on Wednesday: “We are closely monitoring the situation in Gabon. »
The mutinous officers pledged to respect “Gabon’s commitments to the national and international community”.
Asked about Gabon on Wednesday, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said the topic would be discussed by EU ministers this week. Defense ministers from the bloc of 27 meet in Spain on Wednesday and foreign ministers on Thursday. Borrell will chair both meetings and Niger will also be the focus.
“If this is confirmed, it will be another military coup that will increase instability in the whole region,” he said.
Bongo’s family has long-standing ties to the former French colonial ruler, dating back to the four decades of his late father Omar Bongo’s presidency. These have been the subject of legal scrutiny in recent years.
Several members of the Bongo family are under investigation in France, and some have been charged with embezzlement, money laundering and other forms of corruption, according to French media, partly under the impetus for a broader campaign for justice led by non-governmental organizations. who have long accused several African heads of state of embezzling public funds and hiding them in France.
Bongo was seeking a third term in elections this weekend. He has served two terms since coming to power in 2009 after the death of his father, who ruled the country for 41 years. Another group of mutinous soldiers attempted a coup in January 2019, while Bongo was recovering from a stroke in Morocco, but they were quickly subdued.
In the election, Bongo faced an opposition coalition led by economics professor and former education minister Albert Ondo Ossa, whose surprise appointment came a week before the vote.
Every vote held in Gabon since the country’s return to a multiparty system in 1990 has ended in violence. Clashes between government forces and protesters after the 2016 elections left four people dead, according to official figures. The opposition said the death toll was much higher.
Fearing violence, many residents of the capital went to visit their families in other parts of the country ahead of the elections or left Gabon altogether. Others stockpiled food or made their homes more secure.
After last week’s vote, Central African Communications Minister Rodrigue Mboumba Bissawou announced a nightly curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. and said internet access was restricted indefinitely to crack down on misinformation and calls for violence.
NetBlocks, an organization that tracks internet access around the world, said internet service saw a “partial restoration” in Gabon after the coup.
Associated Press reporters Cara Anna in Nairobi, Kenya, Jamey Keaton in Geneva; Angela Charleton in Paris; and Jon Gambrell and Malak Harb in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed.