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Pressure mounts on Gabon junta to relinquish power

Pressure has mounted on coup leaders in Gabon to hand back power to a civilian government, two days after they overthrew President Ali Bongo and announced their own head of state.

Military officers seized power on Wednesday, minutes after an announcement that Bongo had secured a third term in an election.

The officers placed Bongo under house arrest and installed General Brice Oligui Nguema as transitional leader. The takeover ended the Bongo family’s 56-year hold on power.

The coup – West and Central Africa’s eighth in three years – drew cheering crowds onto the streets of the capital, Libreville, but condemnation from abroad and at home.

Central African regional bloc ECCAS urged partners led by the United Nations and the African Union to support a rapid return to constitutional order, it said in a statement dated August 31 after an extraordinary meeting. It said it would reconvene on Monday.

Gabon’s main opposition group, Alternance 2023, which says it is the rightful winner of Saturday’s election, urged the international community on Friday to encourage the junta to hand power back to civilians.

“We were happy that Ali Bongo was overthrown but … we hope that the international community will stand up in favour of the Republic and the democratic order in Gabon by asking the military to give back the power to the civilians,” Alexandra Pangha, spokesperson for Alternance 2023 leader Albert Ondo Ossa, told the BBC.

She said that the junta’s plan to inaugurate Nguema as head of state on Monday was “absurd”.

Bongo was elected in 2009, taking over from his late father who came to power in 1967. Opponents say the family did little to share Gabon’s oil and mining wealth.

For years the Bongo family occupied a luxurious palace overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. They own expensive cars and properties in France and the United States, often paid for in cash, according to a 2020 investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a global network of investigative journalists.

Meanwhile, almost a third of the country’s 2.3 million people live in poverty.

Military leaders ordered the arrest of one of Bongo’s sons, Noureddin Bongo Valentin, and several members of Bongo’s cabinet early on Wednesday on accusations ranging from alleged embezzlement to narcotics trafficking.

State broadcaster Gabon 24 said on Thursday that duffel bags stuffed with cash wrapped in plastic had been confiscated from the homes of various officials. Its footage included a raid on the house of former cabinet director Ian Ghislain Ngoulou.

He told the channel that the money was part of Bongo’s election fund. Bongo Valentin was standing next to him. It was unclear when the images were shot.

Lawyers for Bongo’s wife said on Friday that Bongo Valentin was incarcerated in an undisclosed location, and they were concerned about his safety.

The streets of Libreville were calm on Friday under a heavy security force presence. Talk focused on the junta’s response.

“You need politicians to manage a transition, and above all a state,” said retired Libreville resident Timothe Moutsinga.

“We expect a lot from this government and this transition, a transfer of power to civilians.”

It is unclear what impact the pressure will have. Efforts to reverse coups in other countries have failed in recent years.

The takeover in Gabon follows coups in Guinea, Chad and Niger, plus two each in Mali and Burkina Faso since 2020. The takeovers have erased democratic gains in a region where insecurity and widespread poverty have weakened elected governments, worrying international powers with strategic interests at stake.

The White House said on Friday that it is pursuing “viable diplomatic solutions” to the situations in both Gabon and Niger, where a coup ousted President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26.

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