Clinging to the Snake

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Hours after President Ali Bongo won reelection to a third term in Gabon in August last year, extending his family’s 56-year rule of the West African country, his military officers seized power in a bloodless coup.

It was just the latest military takeover in the region – nine in the past three years – known as the “coup belt” that includes recent coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger.

Still, among that club, Gabon is different, wrote World Politics Review.

Like others in West Africa, many Gabonese voters in the poor but oil-rich former French colony had become deeply unsatisfied with their long-time leader. As Reuters recalled, his government had rebuffed international observers, suspended foreign news broadcasts that might have informed voters before the election, and mandated a nighttime curfew that many suspected would conceal election shenanigans.

The junta now in power installed Gen. Brice Nguema as Gabon’s transitional president, reported National Public Radio. Now, six months later, nobody knows when or if the country will ever return to civilian rule. But even so, unlike Mali, Guinea, Niger or Burkina Faso, the country’s new leader has pledged to hold new elections in August, added Agence France-Presse.

Nguema, a member of the Bongo clan himself, presents himself as a patriot who sought to save Gabon from their former president and his family, who have presided over rampant corruption. He claims that he has been tirelessly improving the country’s infrastructure and enhancing its fiscal position since he assumed power.

Gabon is the third richest country in Africa as measured by GDP per capita, according to the World Bank. Even so, the majority of Gabon’s 2.5 million people live in poverty. It is many of these folks who welcomed the new leadership even though it came about in a coup.

“We have a Gabonese proverb,” Gabonese union leader Jean Remy Yama told NPR. “If you are drowning in a river, you hold on to whatever branch you can find, whether it’s a snake or a crocodile. It doesn’t matter. What matters is getting out of the river.”

Meanwhile, to build support for this transition, he also allowed some members of Bongo’s regime into his government along with opposition figures. He allowed Marie Madeleine Mborantsuo to return as president of the country’s top constitutional court, for example, noted Africa News.

Internationally, Nguema made a point, for example, of posting his meetings with American, British, French, Saudi, and other foreign dignitaries at home and abroad to show that Gabon wants to join the international community. That’s in contrast to Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger which are mainly being courted by Russia and shun regional groupings such as West Africa’s ECOWAS and Western players. Indeed the latter three countries withdrew from ECOWAS last month.

He’s also pursuing a $1.3 billion deal to wrest more power over the country’s oil industry from foreign oil giants, added S&P Global Commodity Insights. As France 24 explained, Gabon is an OPEC member, yet a third of the country lives in poverty.

Meanwhile, the transitional president is also seeking to gain Gabon’s reentry into the Economic Community of Central African States, an organization that the Council on Foreign Relations described as “more a dictators’ club than (a) bastion of democratic principles.” The Community, which is headquartered in the Gabonese capital of Libreville, had suspended Gabon’s membership after the coup.

The strategy might be working, at least domestically. According to Voice of America, supporters of the coup regime have taken to the streets in recent weeks to stage demonstrations denouncing the Community’s move as well as sanctions that other nations have slapped on Gabon to punish Nguema and his junta allies for their power grab. That’s in contrast to protests in Guinea and elsewhere in protest of the ruling junta.

Nguema, say commentators, aims to restore stability in the economy and confidence in the government before holding an election where his name will likely appear.

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