CIVICUS discusses the military coup in Gabon with Pepecy Ogouliguende, expert in human rights, governance, gender and peace mediation and founder and president of Malachie.
Malachie is a Gabonese civil society organisation that combats poverty and promotes sustainable development and gender equality. It is active in a areas that include biodiversity protection, aid in the event of natural disasters, medical support, particularly for people living with HIV/AIDS, and human rights education, especially for the most vulnerable groups in society.
What’s your opinion on Gabon’s recent general election and subsequent military coup?
At around 3am on 30 August 2023, the Gabonese Electoral Commission announced the results of the presidential election, with incumbent Ali Bongo as the winner. A few minutes later, the military announced they had seized power. It is important to stress that this was not a coup d’état, but a seizure of power by the military. This distinction is justified by the fact that it took place without bloodshed.
The election was marred by irregularities and the announcement of the results would have led to protests, albeit legitimate, but which would have ended in violence. I would therefore like to salute the bravery of the defence and security forces.
The military then dissolved all governing institutions and set up a Transition Committee for the Restoration of Institutions (CTRI).
Was your organisation able to observe the election?
No, my organisation was unable to observe the election for the simple reason that no international or national observers were admitted. The election was conducted in total secrecy. Like all Gabonese people, I saw that the announced results did not correspond with the results at the ballot box.
The seizure of power by the defence and security forces in this particular context of public distrust of the authorities and deep suspicion of the election results is rather akin to a patriotic act.
Why has military intervention taken place now, after so many years of Bongo family rule?
Our defence and security forces, along with the public, have observed numerous irregularities and dysfunctions in the state apparatus in recent years. They therefore decided to put an end to this regime, which no longer corresponded to the aspirations of the Gabonese people.
The military saw an opportunity in the 26 August election to end the current system by assuming their responsibilities to save the nation and the rule of law. The aim of this seizure of power is to ‘restore the dignity of the Gabonese people’. As the CTRI spokesperson put it, ‘we are finally on the road to happiness’.
What’s your perspective on international criticism of the coup?
The international community simply acted by the book without first analysing the context. Gabon’s is a very special case.
Celebrations on the streets of Gabon’s main cities showed the extent to which the old regime was no longer wanted, just tolerated. These scenes of popular jubilation, which contrast with the international community’s condemnation, should be a wake-up call to the international community, inviting it to review its approach, which is more focused on safeguarding stability at all costs, often to the detriment of real social progress, development or economic growth – in short, at the expense of the wellbeing of the majority.
All those in the international community who spoke up condemned the ‘coup d’état’ and assured us that they were following developments in Gabon with interest, while reiterating their attachment to respect for institutions. Reactions from international organisations were very strong: the United Nations condemned the coup and the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) suspended Gabon because they directly associated this ‘coup d’état’ with those that had previously taken place elsewhere in the region.
The USA has distanced itself somewhat by stating that it will work with its partners and the people to support the democratic process underway. This is where we look to the rest of the international community to help us work towards building strong institutions.
We salute those states that have clearly understood the need for this change. We condemn AU and ECCAS sanctions. The international community should support states in respecting their laws and constitutions and ensuring that democracy and human rights are respected.
Do you think this coup is part of a regional trend?
First and foremost, it should be reminded that in the case of Gabon, this was a military takeover and not a coup d’état in the strict sense of the term. It was in fact the result of bad governance and failure to take account of the needs of the population, particularly social needs, but also of the thirst for change. It can have regional impacts in the sense that most African populations are experiencing the same difficulties – youth unemployment, poverty, lack of access to healthcare – and aspire to major change. When people don’t feel taken into account by policymakers, they become frustrated.
We don’t rule out the possibility that this will have an impact on our neighbours. It is not too late for the regimes in power in Central Africa to seize this opportunity to rethink the way they serve their people.
What were conditions like for civil society under Bongo family rule? Do you think there is any chance the situation will now improve?
In Gabon, the operation of organisations and associations is governed by law 35/62, which guarantees freedom of association. That said, under the old regime civil society was not taken into account. It was only partly involved in the management of public affairs.
Some leaders, particularly trade union leaders, could be arrested or intimidated if the regime felt they were being overzealous. Several Gabonese civil society leaders denounced arbitrary arrests linked to their opinions and positions.
Like the Gabonese people, civil society is delighted at the change. Civil society as a whole is committed to taking an active part in the actions and reforms carried out by the authorities during the transition, to promote respect for human rights, equity and social justice, the preservation of peace and good governance.
The CTRI has just authorised the release of some of Gabon’s leading trade unionists and prisoners of conscience. In view of the first decisions taken by the CTRI, the best is yet to come. I can safely say that the Gabon of tomorrow will be better. Today there is a glimmer of hope.
Civic space in Gabon is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIVICUS.