Gabon soldiers arrested after announcing coup 'to restore democracy' as president languishes

Adrian Blomfield
Gabon soldiers on state radio called on the people to

Loyalist forces in Gabon swiftly crushed a coup attempt on Monday as a plot by junior officers to end half a century of rule by the Bongo family stuttered to an ignominious halt.

Two hours before dawn, a handful of subalterns from the presidential guard seized control of state radio, announcing to a nation mostly still asleep that power was now in the hands of a “national restoration council”.

But it swiftly became apparent that the conspiracy to oust Ali Bongo, the ailing president of the central African state, was as poorly executed as it was ill-conceived.

Deploying the flowery rhetoric of many a past African coup leader, a young lieutenant identifying himself as Kelly Obiang urged military units and Gabonese civilians onto the streets to support the plotters’ cause.

“If you are eating, stop,” he told listeners. “If you are having a drink, stop. If you are sleeping, wake up… rise up as one and take control of the street.”

Despite the perceived unpopularity of Mr Bongo, a Masonic grand master and former funk singer, just hundreds heeded the call, and they were quickly dispersed with teargas. 

As it became apparent that the plotters had no backup plan, armoured vehicles quickly appeared on the streets of Libreville, the capital, and within a few hours an army unit had recaptured the radio station. 

Two conspirators were killed and five others were arrested, including Lt. Obiang, a government spokesman announced. 

“The government is in place; the institutions are in place,” the spokesman said.

Gabon has been plunged into uncertainty as Ali Bongo has remained abroad since having a stroke in October Credit: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

Gabon, one of Africa’s most prosperous states thanks to its rich oil repositories, has only experienced one coup attempt before, in 1964. 

But never has a president seemed as vulnerable as Mr Bongo. He assumed office in 2009 on the death of his father, Omar, who ruled Gabon for 42 years and reportedly acquired 39 properties in France alone while in office.

Presiding over an ailing economy, “Ali B” — as the president is known — was controversially re-elected in 2016 by the narrowest of margins. Last October, Mr Bongo, who is 59, suffered a stroke and has been convalescing in a Moroccan royal palace for more than a month.

A faltering New Year message, his first since his stroke, did little to assuage fears about his health, with many noting his slurred speech and apparently immobile right hand.

Yet, even given Mr Bongo’s weakened state, observers were surprised that officers in the presidential guard, regarded as highly loyal and almost exclusively drawn from his home region, would attempt a coup. 

Some feared that the plot would be used as a pretext to further repress the opposition or move against its most prominent leader, Jean Ping, a former chairman of the African Union’s commission and the president’s challenger in the 2016 vote.