Gabon military seizes state broadcaster in coup attempt

A military officer giving a statement from a radio station in Libreville, Gabon, on Jan 7, 2019.
A military officer giving a statement from a radio station in Libreville, Gabon, on Jan 7, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

JOHANNESBURG (BLOOMBERG) - Military officers seized Gabon's state broadcaster to announce plans to "save a democracy in danger" in what appeared to be a coup against ailing President Ali Bongo.

The soldiers have been arrested, Radio France Internationale reported, citing a government spokesman.

Young army officers are disappointed with a speech by Mr Bongo on Dec 31 that he broadcast from Morocco, according to Ondo Obiang Kelly, a lieutenant who read the statement on state TV on Monday (Jan 7) and identified himself as a member of the Republican Guard.

Mr Bongo has been convalescing in Morocco for more than two months after suffering a stroke.

"While he attempted to quickly end the debate on his health, the speech only reinforced doubts about his capacity to handle the heavy responsibilities that come with the position of president of the republic," Kelly said on Monday.

That's why the Patriotic Movement of Young Defence and Security Forces decided "to take its responsibility to finally defeat all these manoeuvres that are under way to confiscate power", in an apparent referral to senior Gabonese officials who are running state institutions in Mr Bongo's absence.

Yields on the nation's US$1.5 billion (S$2.04 billion) of sinkable bonds due in December 2024 jumped the most since August, rising 54 basis points to 8.9 per cent by 9.16am in London.

Oil-dependent Gabon is the second-smallest member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

While a majority of the population of less than two million lives in poverty, the Bongo family is among the wealthiest in central Africa, according to a French government probe that resulted in the seizure of real-estate assets in Paris in 2016.

The movement urged army officers to seize weapons and ammunition and join the group, and called on all Gabonese to "take control of the streets" and "save Gabon from chaos".

The soldiers have been arrested and calm will be restored within hours, Radio France Internationale reported, citing Communication Minister Guy-Bertrand Mapangou.

Helicopters were circling overheard in the capital and gunfire rang out across the capital, Libreville, early in the morning, prompting most residents to stay indoors.

The Internet and mobile phone lines were cut a few hours after the coup announcement.

"I am locked up in my house like many others, but information I have is that fighting is going on" around the offices of the state broadcaster RTG, former Prime Minister Raymond Ndong Sima said by phone from Libreville.

"Things are still very confused, hence I can't say for sure whether it is a coup d'etat or a mutiny of the rank and file of the army."

Mr Bongo has only appeared in public twice since he was rushed to the hospital while attending an investment conference in Saudi Arabia on Oct 24.

He has been in power since elections that were held months after the 2009 death in office of his father, Mr Omar Bongo, who was at the time the world's longest-serving president.

The 2016 presidential vote was marred by a violent police crackdown as opposition supporters protested election results that few considered plausible.

Mr Bongo defeated his main challenger, Mr Jean Ping, by less than 6,000 ballots due to a voter turnout of 99 per cent in Mr Bongo's home province.

Mr Ping's complaints were thrown out by the courts even as European Union observers criticised the elections for lacking transparency and the French government called for a recount.