Gabon Junta Tightens Grip as EU Opposes Military Intervention

Gabon’s new military leader sought to justify a takeover of the oil-rich nation even as a top European Union official cautioned against using force to restore civilian rule.

(Bloomberg) — Gabon’s new military leader sought to justify a takeover of the oil-rich nation even as a top European Union official cautioned against using force to restore civilian rule.

Hours after seizing power in the Central African nation, the junta appointed General Brice Nguema — a cousin of ousted President Ali Bongo — as transitional head. Nguema said the decision to remove Bongo was motivated by the president’s ill health, along with what he described as a flawed Aug. 26 election that secured him another term.

“He did not have the right to serve a third term,” Nguema said in an interview with French newspaper Le Monde. “The constitution was flouted, the method of election itself was not good. So the army decided to turn the page, to take responsibility.”

The putsch in the former French colony is the ninth in sub-Saharan Africa in the past three years, and follows a coup in Niger last month. The military takeover drew condemnation from the US, Nigeria, France and the African Union, as it sparked a slump in the nation’s dollar bonds and raised concerns of a spillover of the selloff to other African countries with high political risk.

Read More: Gabon Coup Triggers Bond Selloff Sparking Contagion Fears

The EU doesn’t favor using force to reverse the coup, which was “very distinct” from the one in Niger, said Joseph Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief.

“Naturally, military coup d’etats aren’t the solution, but we can’t forget that just before this, Gabon held elections full of irregularities,” he told a media briefing, a recording of which was posted on X, the social-media platform formerly known as Twitter. “If I rig elections to take power, it’s also an irregular way of getting power.”

Nguema is the head of Gabon’s Republican Guard. The 48-year-old general was a former aide-de-camp to Bongo’s father, former President Omar Bongo, Agence France-Presse reported. He owns properties in the US state of Maryland, according to a report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

His appointment came after army officers appeared on Gabonese state television in the early hours of Wednesday to announce they’d canceled the election and dissolved the country’s institutions. President Bongo is under house arrest with his family and medical doctor, while one of his sons has been detained, the officers said in a separate broadcast.

Bongo, 64, appealed to his supporters around the world to “make noise” about the unfolding events.

Mark Pursey, the chief executive officer of BTP Advisers, who advised Bongo on his election campaign, said the coup appeared to have been pre-planned, with his son and several others arrested by military personnel who were guarding them shortly after the results were announced. 

Gabon is one of OPEC’s smaller members, pumping about 200,000 barrels a day, and has abundant manganese deposits, though these resources haven’t translated into better living standards. About one-third of the population live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.

Gabon’s Eurobonds extended declines on Thursday, with notes due 2025 falling 1.56 cents on the dollar to 82.86 cents, the lowest since October. The bonds are the worst performers on average in emerging markets this month, with a negative return of 11.4%, Bloomberg indexes show. 

“An immediate risk to bondholders will be whether sanctions are imposed,” Rand Merchant Bank said in emailed comments. “The selloff will also concern investors who had taken part in the country’s recent debt-for-nature swap, an increasingly popular means of fund-raising for countries committing to environmental protection.”

Read More: What’s Driving the Coups Across Sub-Saharan Africa?: QuickTake

Shares in French mining group Eramet SA, oil and gas producer Maurel & Prom SA and a listed unit of TotalEnergies SE, which all have operations in Gabon, plunged in Paris trading on Wednesday but pared some of their losses on Thursday. 

The putsch raises anxiety about a potential contagion of coups in Africa and increases pressure on the Economic Community of West African States and other regional bodies to act to restore civilian rule in Niger. The 15-nation bloc has threatened to use military force to compel that military junta to relinquish power but hasn’t followed through so far. 

Since 2020, there have been two coups each in Burkina Faso and Mali, as well as military takeovers in Chad, Guinea, Niger and Sudan. The latest putsch in Gabon highlights the inability of the AU to prevent coups, said Charlie Robertson, head of macro strategy at FIM Partners UK Ltd. in London.

“The ineffective African Union has sat back and watched regime after regime topple in Africa and failed to reverse any of the coups in recent years,” he said. “The African Union needs to step up and take some responsibility for what’s happening on the continent, before the coup contagion spreads further.”

The continental body, which suspended Niger from all its activities following the coup in the West African nation, said it “strongly condemns” the army’s actions in Gabon in a statement posted on X.

The Economic Community of Central African States condemned the coup and called for an “immediate return to constitutional order” and Bongo’s release. A meeting of heads of state from the regional bloc would be held to formulate a response, it said in a statement without specifying a date. 

Gabon has been ruled by the Bongos for more than five decades.

Ali Bongo was first elected president in 2009, four months after the death of his father, who had held power since 1967. Soldiers launched a failed coup in 2019, months after Bongo suffered a stroke that sidelined him for almost a year.

–With assistance from Arijit Ghosh, Neil Munshi, Robert Brand and Natalia Drozdiak.

(Updates with comment from EU official in fifth paragraph.)

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