‘Family affair’: Gabon opposition lambasts coup, claims election victory

Albert Ondo Ossa, nominated candidate for the Alternance 2023 opposition alliance in Gabon, speaks to the media in Libreville on August 18, 2023 [Steeve Jordan/AFP]

The opposition candidate said the military takeover was ‘a palace revolution, not a coup d’etat’ staged to prevent him from becoming Gabon’s leader.

Albert Ondo Ossa, Gabon’s main opposition candidate in the August 26 presidential election has claimed victory in the election while dismissing Wednesday’s coup in the oil-rich central African country as “a disappointment” and “family affair”.

Early on Wednesday, minutes after the electoral authority announced that President Ali Bongo, who had been in power since after his father’s death in 2009, had won a third term, coup plotters had struck.

“I consider myself to be the candidate who won the presidential election,” Ossa said in an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera on Thursday, adding that the election outcome and military takeover were “two coups in one”.

He did not give any more details about his claim but said the Gabonese had voted massively for him and he would use constitutional means to contest the election outcome.

Ossa, an economics professor had been presented by six opposition parties under the alliance Alternance 2023, garnered 30 percent of the votes while the incumbent got 64 percent.

A dozen soldiers who introduced themselves as members of “The Committee of Transition and the Restoration of Institutions”, had announced on national television that they were annulling the election and dissolving all institutions of state.

The putschists said they acted partly because of “irresponsible and unpredictable governance” and because preparation for the election “did not meet the conditions for a transparent, credible and inclusive ballot so much hoped for by the people of Gabon”.

The ousted president later confirmed via a viral video believed to be recorded in the presidential palace, that he had been detained by the coup leaders, most of whom seemed to be from the Republican Guard, mandated to secure the president.

Brice Nguema, leader of that unit and a cousin to Bongo, was also named transitional leader on Wednesday.

“I had imagined this coup d’etat, it was likely,” Ossa told Al Jazeera. “I follow political activity in the country, I see how the institutions work, I see how the presidential guard works and I saw the rise of Brice Oligui Nguema and I knew something was up.”

Both men are not strangers to each other. The opposition candidate served as education minister under the tenure of Bongo’s father Omar when Nguema was a captain within the Republican Guard.

On Friday, Nguema vowed the country’s institutions would be more democratic.

“The dissolution of the institutions” decreed on Wednesday during the coup “is temporary”, he said in a speech. “It is a question of reorganising them in order to make them more democratic.”

‘A palace revolution, not a coup d’etat’

In the coup announcement, the soldiers said Gabon was “finally on the road to happiness”.

Hundreds of citizens took to the streets of Libreville the capital to celebrate with the soldiers, with some hugging them, evidence of gratitude for what they saw as freedom from the Bongo dynasty which had been in power since 1967. There were similar scenes of joy in Port-Gentil, the central African country’s second-largest city.

But Ossa criticised the coup, saying it was “a disappointment”.

“You think you’re saving your country, but then you realize you’re back to square one. It’s embarrassing,” he told Al Jazeera.

The politician had told French channel TV5 Monde that the coup had been orchestrated by Pascaline Bongo, sister of the deposed president. He declined to give any more details about her alleged involvement to Al Jazeera, instead preferring to focus on the new leader who he called a “little Bongo”.

According to a 2020 investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) on the Bongo family’s assets in the United States, Nguema invested in real estate, paying in cash.

“He bought three properties in middle- and working-class neighbourhoods in the Maryland suburbs of Hyattsville and Silver Spring, just outside the capital, in 2015 and 2018. The homes were purchased with a total of over $1m in cash,” the OCCRP report said.

“He’s a cousin of Bongo, so how can I think he’s different? It’s a palace revolution, we’re still in Bongo power … he grew up in the palace, this young man. I knew him as a relative of Bongo, as all Gabonese know,” Ossa said, while declining to comment on the specifics of the report.

“Basically, I think the Bongo family got rid of one of its members who was weighing on the family, and they wanted Bongo power to continue, while at the same time preventing Albert Ondo Ossa from coming to power,” he added. “It was a palace revolution, not a coup d’etat. This is a family affair, where one brother replaces another.”

The opposition figure said the celebration among the population was an initial reaction that would soon be replaced by a realisation that the Bongo family was still in power by proxy.

Ossa said he was committed to seeing his mandate returned, but would not call for citizens to take to the streets to demonstrate, like in Kenya and Zimbabwe, after recent elections. Instead, he promised to prioritise internal and external diplomatic channels in “ensuring that republican order returns”.



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