Gabon: A Civil War in the Making?

39 Min Read

Civil war has been an all too common experience of many African countries. Persistent conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, barbaric mutilations of civilians in Sierra Leone, and a horrendous genocide in Rwanda are only the most prominent examples of cruelty inflicted on Africans by Africans. When the atrocious images of these conflicts reach Western media, they cause shock and bewilderment, as people wonder what causes such depravity.

When experts point out structural reasons for this violence, they refer to the scramble for natural resources, the colonial heritage, weak institutions, ethnic animosities, or the lack of professionalism of the combatants. Albeit often true, these explanations cannot satisfyingly explicate the brutality characterising so many conflicts on the continent. They do not address the rage that fuels such violence –rage that has been growing and spreading over years. The international public is largely unaware of these tensions. After all, the political conditions in Sub-Saharan Africa seem to have improved.

Indeed, West Africa has recently experienced a wave of democratization as various illegitimate governments were removed or peaceful transfers of power were accomplished (e.g. Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal). In Central Africa, long-lasting autocratic regimes seem more established (e.g. Cameroon, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo).

Nonetheless, the repressive nature of those governments seems moderate, and they are sometimes characterized as “soft dictatorships” or “African-style democracies.” Their leaders usually refrain from overtly displaying brutality, or maintaining their position primarily through terror. Mass killings and personality cults, as in Idi Amin Dada’s Uganda or Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire, are less common. Nowadays, most African leaders seek to maintain the appearance of functioning institutions and valid democratic processes.

They regularly organise elections and referendums, which are often deemed “free and valid” by international observers. Nevertheless, this illusion of democracy only dissimulates significant social tensions, which remain vastly underreported. Even the somewhat restrained exercise of political power cannot conceal that many African societies are deeply unjust. In those “soft dictatorships,” access to opportunities and influence is often limited to a small privileged class, while the life chances of the overwhelming majority are greatly diminished.

As perceptions of the legitimacy of the elite decrease, rage and frustration continue to grow in the population, especially when economic hardship contributes to a reduced quality of life. When the political circumstances are suitable, these tensions lead to social unrest, and the rage may explode in ferocious acts of violence. The small nation of Gabon becomes an emblematic example of how rage has built up over time, and created conditions for a violent civil war.

The Gabonese Republic is considered one of the more stable African countries. Unlike most of its neighbors, Gabon has been spared the experience of armed conflict. In the almost 60 years since its independence, the country has seen some protests and unrest, but so far nothing has escalated to a full-blown civil war. Given the realities of war in the region, most of the 1.7 million Gabonese understandably want to keep it that way.

Yet, frustration has been mounting for years. As a result, calls for violence, and even war, have become more prevalent. These calls to arms are not voiced by a radicalized minority of political fanatics, but rather by ordinary citizens, who are not driven by any particular ideological program. What could possibly motivate such comments from a historically peaceful people?

Discontent in Gabon

In June 2009, Omar Bongo Ondimba, the president of Gabon since 1967, died in office. In August that year, his son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, won a controversial presidential election, and has since then been the target of much anger and frustration. Indeed, many claim that Ali Bongo not only stole the election, but also submitted a falsified birth certificate when he registered as a candidate. The Gabonese constitution declares that only individuals who were born Gabonese can run for president.

However, Ali Bongo’s critics claim that he was not born Gabonese, and that he is not even the biological son of Omar Bongo. Rumor has it that he is an orphan of Biafra, the short-lived nation that seceded from Nigeria in 1967, resulting in a ferocious civil war. Following the French foreign policy lead, the Gabonese Republic was among the few African allies of Biafra, providing weapons and non-military assistance.

A Nigerian blockade of the secessionist territory, led to the death of many Biafran children from starvation, much to the dismay of the international public opinion. To emphasize the humanitarian dimension of the Gabonese involvement, Gabon airlifted many endangered children out of the war zone. President Omar Bongo is said to even have adopted a Biafran orphan. This adoptive son is alleged to be no other than the current president of Gabon.

Though, Ali Bongo and his supporters deny this narrative about his origins, they have not been able to effectively stop the rumours. The counter evidence they have produced, which includes non-official birth certificates, family photos that seem to have been manipulated, and highly questionable witness accounts, has only intensified the debate about Ali Bongo’s filiation. The dispute over the president’s genealogy continues to raise frustration with the illegitimacy of the Bongo regime.

During the four decades of Bongo rule, the vast majority of Gabonese have been deprived of economic development, political influence, and fair opportunities, only to secure the privileges of the presidential family and a small minority associated with them. Equivalent issues of illegitimate elites, in combination with poor living standards for the majority, have plagued other African countries, where they have not only contributed to the outbreak of war, but also to its particularly cruel conduct.

The have and the have-nots in Gabon

The Gabonese society is profoundly divided. After the colonial era, a small elite accumulated most of the country’s wealth and influence. Eligibility to this exclusive circle was limited to confidants of Omar Bongo, who took office soon after the independence from France, and members of his ruling Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG). It was through affiliation with the regime, not merit, that a privileged few secured enormous wealth, prestigious positions, and personal power. Omar Bongo established and utilized networks, operating parallel to the official state institutions, to recruit into the exclusive circles of power.

Freemasonry, a European import, has become widespread in African elite circles, and developed its own continental character. Omar Bongo relied heavily on the support of its Gabonese chapter, the Grande Loge du Gabon (GLG), and its mother lodge, the Grande Loge Nationale Française (GLNF). The population has always reacted with suspicion and rumors to the activities of these parallel networks. What seems certain is that they are highly influential, yet lacking transparency and accountability.

In addition, Omar Bongo took pride in his unlimited capacity to make and unmake the ambitious. “I can turn a dog into a minister,” he said. Those who were in his favor benefitted greatly from their loyalty. Countless real estate properties, fleets of cars, prestigious titles, servants and maids, and excessive wealth were obtained by people of mere average qualification and ability. Such extravagancies were financed by the public treasury, which Omar Bongo regarded as his personal bank account.

Birth into those privileged families determined the life chances of the generation that followed. The children of the minuscule elite would often attend well-endowed private institutions, or boarding schools abroad. Their higher education would typically be pursued at French universities. Most of them eventually returned to Gabon and assumed lucrative positions. Merit and performance have been secondary. Upward mobility has largely depended on networking and gaining access to the inner circles of power. Naturally, the members of the Gabonese elite regard their privileges as merit-based. After all, they hold foreign degrees and do work for their salaries and bonuses from high-profile professions.

But rich citizens are not the only ones who live well in Gabon. For many French expatriates, the country has become a land of great opportunities. Many former French colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa have maintained privileged relationships with their previous colonizer. The legal colonial ties have been replaced by informal influence. Gabon has become the posterchild of Franceafrique, this peculiar network securing close, yet dubious, cooperation between elite circles in France and in its former colonies.

A great appreciation for everything French has grown among the Gabonese privileged. This Francophile elite has provided a welcoming and admiring community for numerous French expats. The benefits have been mutual. While French expatriates have gained access to ample opportunities, which would be out of reach in the motherland, members of the Gabonese elite have obtained the acknowledgment that they are truly distinguished from their fellow citizens. The latter, while forming the vast majority of the population, are often approached with indifference, mistrust, and even disdain, by both the French and the Gabonese privileged.

By the early 1990s, this vast discrepancy in wealth, opportunity and mindset had become an integral part of the Gabonese society. In 1990, however, the majority of Gabonese displayed their desire for change, and challenged the status quo, and the Bongo regime altogether. The suspicious death of opposition leader Joseph Rendjambé led to the most violent uprising in the country’s history. The crisis put Omar Bongo’s presidency in serious danger. However, he managed to stay in office, thanks to the help from the French army, which has one of its largest Central African bases in Libreville.

Subsequently, Omar Bongo agreed to abandon the mono-party system, and allowed other parties to compete with the PDG. He won the presidential elections in 1993, complaints about fraud and intimidation notwithstanding. For the remainder of his life, Omar Bongo would stay in office. He would repeatedly highlight the examples of war-torn African countries to illustrate the dangers of political change. When he died in 2009, Omar Bongo had been in office for 42 years – then, the longest-serving head of state worldwide.

The King is dead-Long live the King

When his father died, politics had only been a recent interest of Ali Bongo’s. His initial aspiration was to be a singer. He released his debut album in the late 1970s, and would promote himself as the “African James Brown.” However, toward the end of Omar Bongo’s presidency and life, Ali Bongo’s political ambitions had grown, and he had risen in the government. When his father died in a Spanish hospital, Ali Bongo, who held the position of Minister of Defence, was quick to react: the borders were closed, armed forces were deployed and positioned at strategic points, and the internet was shut down.

After stability was secured, the preparation for the presidential election begun. A loyal PDG member, Rose Francine Rogombé, served as interim president. Other former supporters of the Bongo regime, the most prominent being André Mba Obame, attempted to seize their opportunity. They left the PDG and ran against Ali Bongo. A heated, but mostly peaceful, presidential race ensued. The established PDG elite longed for continuity and fully supported Ali Bongo.

After the population had gone to the polls, the electoral commission, appointed by the government, began the counting. Results were expected soon, and residents of the matitis (local slums) of Libreville gathered in the Cité de la Démocratie (City of Democracy) neighborhood, ready to react to the announcement of an unbelievable outcome. The security forces were on stand-by, facing the crowds in a tense standoff. But no results came that first night, nor the next, nor the next.

A government spokesman announced that more time was needed, since gathering the votes from remote locations took longer than expected. After a few days, fatigue set in, the crowds dispersed, and less potential troublemakers populated the streets. That was when the counting was completed. A close race, the government admitted. But in the end Ali Bongo won.

Some unrest ensued in Libreville. A few street barricades, a few burning tires, a few stones were thrown at the police, and a few insults at French expats. Resistance was fiercer in the oil-rich city of Port-Gentil, where the resentment against Franceafrique resulted in the French consulate being set on fire. Yet, it was nothing that the security forces could not handle within a few days. In Libreville, the situation was soon under control.

In Port-Gentil, more effort was needed, and several protesters were killed. The opposition doubted the official result, and complained about irregularities. They were encouraged to voice their concerns to the Constitutional Court. The presiding judge, Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo, a former mistress of the late Omar Bongo and mother to one of his numerous children, confirmed the official results. For the 7 years to come, Ali Bongo’s presidency was secured.

Mounting frustration

Very few are truly happy with the developments since then. The falling oil prices have severely affected the revenue of oil exporting nations, especially those whose economy primarily rests on this single commodity. Gabon is no exception, and had to tighten the budget. Ali Bongo cancelled the financial aid for higher education abroad. Since then, quality college education has been limited to those whose families can afford to support them abroad.

Everybody else has been referred to the completely neglected, underfinanced and underdeveloped domestic university system. Student protests, and the arrest of their instigators, have become an ordinary component of Gabonese public life. Employees in the public sector sometimes remain unpaid for several months and strikes are common. The public health care system is in shatters. Water shortages and power outages are regular. Under Omar Bongo’s rule, they used to last a few hours, at the most. Since Ali Bongo took office, outages of days or even weeks are not uncommon. They can only be bypassed in residences with privately owned generators and water tanks.

Simultaneously, the lavish spending habits of the ruling class remain undiminished. Of course, the presidential family leads by example. Ali Bongo continues to increase his collection of luxury cars. He is said to occasionally close the airport to enjoy fun races on the runways, since the streets of Libreville are falling apart. The president’s sister, Pascaline Mferri Bongo Ondimba, frequently travels in private jets, which only makes international headlines when she fails to pay for it.

The president’s French wife, Sylvia, was reported to have spent 1 million Euro during a single shopping trip to Paris, touring the luxury boutiques on Champs-Élysées. Critics point out that such debauchery is financed by the public revenue. From transactions in cash to the creation of corporations with the Bongo family as majority shareholder, such as Delta Synergie, public money is diverted in multiple ways. There are ongoing investigations in the U.S. and France looking into the origins of several luxury real estate properties owned by the Bongos. In 2015, Maixent Accrombessi, Ali Bongo’s chief of cabinet and close confidant, was detained by French authorities on suspicion of corruption.

The loyalty of distinguished PDG members must also be bought. Omar Bongo established an extensive system of neopatrimonialism, a form of personal rule in which the loyalty of clients is secured with state resources. Ali Bongo has maintained this system. The president’s most distinguished supporters hold positions in government agencies or publicly owned businesses.

Their official salaries often appear reasonable. However, they receive enormous bonuses and tips, which are granted for the most trivial tasks of their job. At the same time, a purposely dysfunctional surveillance system secures that only insiders, who know how to stay under the radar, can benefit from large-scale corruption.

Not only the private spending of the Bongo dynasty is questionable. A variety of unnecessary, but expensive, prestige projects also drain the public revenue. In 2012, Gabon hosted the African Cup of Nations (CAN), the most significant soccer tournament on the continent. The construction of stadiums, hotels, and streets was started (but often not completed before the tournament), to accommodate crowds of tourists that did not show. Of course, the botched hosting of the tournament did not prevent the Confederation of African Football (CAF), the continental chapter of the notoriously corrupt FIFA, to grant Gabon another hosting of the CAN in 2017.

The CAN has not been the only exploit financed by public funds. Libreville has seen boat races, marathons, concerts, and Brazilian carnivals, to distract the masses and entertain the elite. Such spectacles offer various possibilities to divert money, and generate prestige for the government. A regular recurrence is the New York Forum Africa, which poses as a platform to discuss development issues, but mostly serves the purpose of inviting celebrities to increase the appeal of the regime.

Some invitees, such as Spike Lee, saw through the pretense and declined. Others, such as Boris Becker, Robert de Niro, Carl Lewis and Dikembe Mutombo, attended – perhaps believing in the official purpose of the forum. Indeed, international celebrities are often, willingly or unwillingly, utilized to support the appearance of legitimacy. The list includes soccer star Lionel Messi and even the U.S. president. After a state visit to Washington, Ali and Sylvia Bongo had their picture taken with Barack and Michelle Obama. This official photo was reposted on Sylvia Bongo’s public Facebook page, where she warmly thanked the Obamas for hosting them, implying a personal friendship between the presidential couples.

The continuous extravagancies, the failed policies, and the government’s detachment from actual issues have drastically increased the discontent in Gabon. Uncertainty about the future is omnipresent. Even the elite criticizes Ali Bongo (though, for the most part, not publicly), since the growing tensions threaten to endanger their treasured privileges. A grizzly manifestation of the uneasiness is the radical increase in ritual killings.

Those murders are suspected to be ordered by people who believe in the supernatural powers of human body parts. The organs are assumed to be more potent when they are harvested from living and conscious victims. Those who order such killings hope to improve their fortune. The victims (frequently children) are abducted, their organs collected, processed by witch doctors, and the resulting potions delivered.

In recent years, more and more bodies, with missing eyes, tongues, hearts, or genitals have been found at deserted beaches in Libreville. Since sponsoring these crimes is expensive, many suspect that politicians, eager to secure their positions, are responsible. These rumors are further nurtured by the dearth of any arrests, and the government’s denial of the ritual nature of these murders. Journalists, whose reports question the official position, are harassed and sometimes, as in the case of Jonas Moulenda, forced into exile.

In general, the criminal law is mostly misused to force bribes from citizens or pressure regime critics into silence. In his last years, Omar Bongo preferred to secure his power with a mixture of incentives and manipulation. He appeared to only resort to overt force when unruly opponents were sufficiently low-profile, or when other means had failed. His heir, however, shows less restraint. When caricaturists continued to exaggerate the corpulent president’s girth, such depictions were outlawed.

Newspapers criticizing official policies are suspended. Unauthorized demonstrations are violently dispersed. In the fall of 2015, an executive initiative even attempted to declare questioning the biological origins of a person, for example the president, a criminal offense. The constitutional court postponed the bill pointing out procedural errors. Unofficial sources claim that the presiding judge Mborantsuo was subsequently prevented from leaving the country for a trip abroad. Soon thereafter, she reaffirmed her full support for Ali Bongo.

Maintaining the government is the primary purpose of the security forces. Ali Bongo’s job creation program consisted of massive police recruitment. The result is an incompetent, undertrained, underpaid, but highly corrupt police force, whose members turn against the population and abuse their power in various ways. Actual, or completely made-up, rule violations offer welcome opportunities to collect bribes. Cab drivers are frequently pulled over for alleged traffic violations.

To avoid trouble, they usually pay the officers. Another frequently victimized group are street vendors. The police often harass traders, who depend on their daily sales to make a living. Under the pretense of not having a proper license, the vendors are threatened with confiscation and destruction of their goods. Most pay the officers to avoid this outcome. In the fall of 2015, two recent incidents of resistance shed light on these practices.

A viral video of two market women, stripping nude in protest against police racketeering, surfaced. The women were arrested, and the officer filming the incident, thus causing an embarrassment for the police, faced disciplinary action. Another street vendor, Béranger Obame Ndoutoume, died after being set on fire. His family claims that he was deliberately set alight, after confronting the police. Official reports claim that he refused to abandon his goods, which were confiscated and burned, after he failed to produce a license. This clarification did little to alleviate the public outrage.

Actual law enforcement is rare and ineffective. Victims of ongoing crimes, who manage to contact the police, have been told that no officer is able to reach them, since patrol cars are out of gas. When citizens naively report crimes, the responsible officer reluctantly files a report. If they come back, they are repeatedly informed that the case is under investigation, until they have enough sense to give up. The occasional arrest of an actual offender is often not followed by proper court proceedings. Suspects are detained, under scandalous conditions. Some are lucky enough to be released after extended time in prison – without trial.

Many citizens deem the official political opposition as useless as they consider the police. Indeed, many opposition leaders are former PDG members. They had become rich and influential in the party, before they decided that it was their duty to challenge the new president, lest he becomes too established. Jean Ping, for example, probably Ali Bongo’s most prominent political opponent in the upcoming election, served as minister of foreign affairs, before Omar Bongo supported his appointment as chairman of the Commission of the African Union (AU).

Ping’s democratic commitment is called into question by his ambiguous stance toward the late Muammar Gaddafi, and his distance to the ruling family by his previous romantic involvement with Pascaline Bongo, with whom he has two children. Such opposition leaders seem eager to take over Ali Bongo’s position, but they are less believable as proponents of fundamental change. Some courageous members of the civil society, such as the environmentalist Marc Ona Essangui, provide the only credible opposition. They organize protests or utilize social media, to criticize the government and challenge official reports. This activity comes at the prize of the constant threat of arrest or harassment.

Thus is the situation in Gabon, a few months before the presidential elections. Most citizens do not truly believe that the government is willing to organize elections they could possibly lose. The signs for another PDG success are already abundant. Ali Bongo’s eligibility is not to be questioned, and he is the uncontested candidate of his party. Also, there are no mechanisms in place that will guarantee transparency.

Loyal PDG supporters in the electoral commission will, yet again, be in in the position to count the votes and confirm the results. Similar to the election in 2009, domestic journalists will be coerced to refrain from releasing unauthorized news, and disobedient foreign journalists will be ordered to leave the country. And of course, counting the votes will, again, take a long time – long enough to make it difficult to maintain any readiness for resistance.

And resistance is expected. Critics and supporters of the regime are united in their belief that actual change cannot occur peacefully. Even French expats are aware of the tension, their limited contact with the general population notwithstanding. Many have come to the conclusion that the period around the election will be the right time for an extended vacation in the motherland. Gabonese citizens, who cannot resort to this option, are aware that the country’s long history without armed conflict may come to an end.

Some regime supporters are defiant, mocking the critics, pointing out their history of passive acceptance, and emphasizing the superior firepower of the security forces. But even they cannot conceal a certain uneasiness. Even the Bongo family appears to be prepared for danger. They may seek a comfortable life in exile, hosted by Ali Bongo’s childhood friend Mohammed VI of Morocco. The majority of the population cannot resort to such exit strategies.

The roots of rage

The fates of too many African nations still lie in the hands of illegitimate leaders, no matter whether they pose as benevolent paternalists or anticolonial avengers. Frustration in the population grows with the perceived illegitimacy of the privileged elite, and so does the belief that peaceful political change is impossible.

In Gabon, the legitimacy of Ali Bongo’s presidency is highly questionable. His legal eligibility for the office is widely doubted. His victory in the 2009 election was fraudulent, as many domestic and international observers believe. His support is derived from dubious networks, operating without any public accountability. He inherited his father’s position as head of the Gabonese freemasonry, and has sought to establish his own circle of confidants, whose influence is neither based on competence nor public consent.

The upcoming elections in Gabon will further undermine the president’s legitimacy. His official victory seems inevitable, and so does the rage of the population. To contain the unrest, which is almost certain to occur, the government will abandon what is left of the appearance of a “soft dictatorship” and become more repressive, thus further fueling anger and discontent. If this situation escalates, the world may witness another African civil war.

Some commentators extenuate the illegitimacy of African leaders. They perpetuate the notion that African polities are not prepared for truly democratic processes, strong institutions, and rule of law. Africa is declared an exception from the general requirement that political power must be derived from the will of the governed. The public interest is expected to be advanced, when unconstrained strongmen exercise benevolent self-restraint.

This position has little credibility, especially when it is adopted by members of the elite that hold that the only suitable forms of governance are the ones that preserve their unfair advantages. In Gabon, the political opposition seems to embody this stance as much as the government does. Party leaders, who left the PDG and hope to succeed Ali Bongo, appear all too eager to establish their own personal rule.

For instance, Jean Ping declared that in Africa democratic vote amounts to little more than an ethnic census taking. This stance is yet another rationalization why the majority should be excluded from political participation. Since the organized political process offers little hope for fundamental change, disadvantaged citizens may seek nothing less than the forceful removal of the established political class.

Indeed, the entire elite benefits from the profound lack of fairness, which Gabon has in common with so many other African societies. The privileged take advantage of weak institutions, absent rule of law, and the exclusion of the majority. They engage in unconstraint rent-seeking and participate in the diversion of public resources. Such widespread misappropriation of public income drains the funds available for solid infrastructure investment, hinders innovation, and prevents lasting economic development.

Another obvious consequence is the solidification of the extreme wealth discrepancies that distinguish the elite from the majority of the population. A complete absence of humbleness further emphasizes the resulting inequalities. In Gabon, where the long history of neopatrimonialism has created excessive inequality, a culture of bragging is particularly widespread. Consequently, the poor are constantly reminded of their disadvantaged status. Their anger has grown, since the country’s recent economic crisis has further reduced their quality of life.

Access to exclusive group of the privileged may or may not coincide with ethnic origins. Again, the example of Gabon is illustrative. One might perceive the Gabonese state as an oppressive minority rule, by the Bateke and Obamba groups from the Haut-Ogooué region, over the Fang majority and other ethnicities. This perspective misconstrues the fact that most Haut-Ogooué people are just as excluded from access to opportunities, wealth, and influence as other ethnicities. Ethnic considerations played a certain role in how Omar Bongo assigned various privileges (i.e. influence in different domains of public life was predominantly reserved for specific ethnic groups).

However, the relevance of ethnicity has declined with his son’s rule. Many of those closest to Ali Bongo were not even born Gabonese. His wife is a French citizen and many of his closest friends and confidants were only recently naturalized. Critics have dubbed this group “foreign legion.” They are granted influence and access to highest positions over born Gabonese citizens, which is another reason for criticism and anger.

In general, the illegitimacy of the privileged class and the lack of opportunities for a young, disadvantaged majority increases the chance of violent conflict. In many African countries personal relations determine access to positions, funding, and support. In Gabon, in particular, opportunities are only available for members of established networks. It appears nearly impossible for outsiders to take out a loan, get access to public funding, support for business plans, or lucrative employment. Moreover, even some privileged see their status endangered under Ali Bongo’s rule. The result is an increasing number of regime insiders leaving the PDG and joining the ranks of the president’s critics.

To summarize, frustration and rage are on the rise in Gabon. The support for Ali Bongo is eroding. In addition, an increasing number of Gabonese have little hope that the regular political process, which is completely controlled by the PDG, can lead to change that will improve their personal lot.

Hence, many become convinced that violent uprising is their only chance. The year 2016 will be a decisive one in Gabonese history. It is not the official outcome of the presidential election that is in question. The declaration of another PDG victory seems all but certain. What is more interesting is how an enraged population will react to this official result.

Alexander Schuhr is an independent researcher and freelance writer, who has lived in Africa for several years. Being married to a Gabonese wife, he has been able to observe the evolution of the social and political conditions in Gabon for over a decade. He holds a Ph.D. in economics and an M.A. in political science.

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